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Students are happier if their college requires vaccines, survey finds

But nearly half of all respondents could not accurately describe their colleges’ COVID-19 policies

vaccine mandate

With students returning to college campuses this September, many universities implemented COVID-19 policies to keep cases low. But how do students feel about school policies given some states’ attempts to block vaccine and mask mandates?

A new survey of more than 1,200 U.S. college students shows those in colleges with mask and vaccine mandates were more likely to approve of their universities’ handling of COVID-19 than those without. But about half were confused about what their university’s policy actually said.

The findings may help shed light on how the wider, often contentious debates about mandates are playing out on U.S. campuses, according to researchers at Northwestern, Harvard, Northeastern and Rutgers universities.

Do they understand the policy?

In all, 66% of students replied that they knew what their university’s policy was, but only about two-thirds of those could accurately describe the details when asked. This indicates that 44% of the students surveyed did not accurately understand the policy of their own institution.

“This suggests schools are not doing a great job communicating their policies and ensuring they are understood,” said IPR political scientist James Druckman. He co-leads the COVID States Project.

Druckman is the Payson S. Wild Professor of Political Science in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and associate director of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern.

Of the nearly 4,000 colleges and universities across the U.S., more than 1,000 have a vaccine mandate, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

More than one-third of students (35%) report having a vaccine mandate at their colleges, with double that number reporting a mask mandate. Nearly three-fourths of the students surveyed (74%) report having received at least one COVID-19 vaccine — 7% percentage points more than all 18-to 24-year-olds (67%).

Conducted between Aug. 26 and Sept. 27, the nationally representative survey gauges college students’ attitudes around COVID-19 policies. It examines them by their university’s size, whether it is public or private, its COVID-19 policy, and even the attitudes of the governor in the state where the college is located.

“We looked at college students as a group, given they have been eligible for the vaccine for some time,” Druckman said, “but they also tend to be a fairly averse population and are living under a wide range of circumstances.”

Views inline with the U.S. population

While college students’ views on vaccine and mask mandates largely align with those of the general U.S. population, they also varied by students’ political affiliation, their own vaccine status, the kind of university they attended and other demographic characteristics.

The researchers find that students going to college in states led by Democratic governors (42%), those at private institutions (45%), and those in medium to large institutions (33%-40%) are more likely to report having vaccine mandates for students at their university.

At schools with vaccine mandates, the researchers also find sizeable proportions of unvaccinated students say they continue to attend classes in person. They surmise this might be happening due to how mandates are enforced or implemented: Often, proof of vaccination is not required, and some students are either requesting exemptions or mounting legal challenges. 

Approval for their respective universities

  • Four out of five college students (80%) attending universities requiring vaccinations for students overwhelmingly approved of their university’s handling of COVID-19 — compared with less than one of two (47%) for those attending universities without such a requirement, a difference of 33 percentage points.
  • Students at private universities were slightly more likely to approve of their university’s handling of the pandemic at 60% versus 54% of those at public ones.
    • Students at the smallest universities of less than 1,000 students were generally the least likely to see student vaccine mandates (30%) or mask mandates (57%), compared with students at larger universities.
  • Republican (44%) and unvaccinated students (41%) were among those less likely to approve of their university’s requiring student COVID-19 vaccinations. But 61% of Democratic students and 58% of students who had received at least one dose of a vaccine approved of their university’s requirement.
    • Interestingly, 33% of unvaccinated college students approved of vaccine mandates for all compared with only 24% of all unvaccinated Americans.
  • Black (62%) and Asian American (65%) college students were more likely to approve of how their university was handling the crisis compared with 49% of Hispanic and 52% of White students.
  • For students required to attend all of their classes in person, only 43% of them approved of their school’s handling of COVID-19 vaccinations compared with 54% of those who had all-remote classes.

In all, more than 21,000 Americans were surveyed, of whom 1,290 reported they were university students. The researchers also complemented their survey with data from the National Center for Education Statistics in the U.S. Department of Education and the College Crisis Initiative to check the students’ understanding of their institutions’ policies.

Previous COVID-States survey results can be found here.

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