At Least 1,100 Colleges Now Require Proof of COVID-19 Vaccination

The widespread mandate has led to many discussions about medical and religious exemptions and the continued drop in enrollment.

At Least 1,100 Colleges Now Require Proof of COVID-19 Vaccination

(Photo: WESTOCK, Adobe Stock)

More than 1,100 U.S. colleges and universities now require proof of vaccination against COVID-19, igniting conversations about exemptions and enrollment.

Some schools announced this spring that they would be requiring students and faculty to get the shot while others waited until after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave full approval to the Pfizer vaccine in August.

Most schools that have issued mandates have seen widespread compliance, according to The Associated Press. Overall, universities with mandates are reporting higher vaccination rates than their surrounding communities, even in areas with high rates of vaccine hesitancy.

Some campuses have seen near-total compliance, including state flagship schools in Maryland, Illinois and Washington, says AP. At Virginia Tech, 95% of students are inoculated. At Ohio University’s Athens campus, students and employees who reported being vaccinated jumped from 69% to nearly 85% after the mandate was put in place.

Although there has been a high compliance rate, many schools are making it easy to get around the mandate through religious or medical exemptions after lawsuits started piling up, like this one at the University of Colorado. Some schools are even granting exemptions for philosophical reasons.

According to an analysis by AP, most of the country’s largest universities aren’t seeing a significant number of student exemption requests but many of those schools have approved the vast majority. Some have even granted all of them.

The requests are often reviewed by committees that consist of medical experts, faculty members and student life administrators. Some require signed doctor’s notes or statements explaining the principles of their religious beliefs.

At Virginia Tech, all 1,600 exemptions were approved as long as they agreed to weekly testing. When it comes to questioning religious exemptions, VT President Tim Sands says that’s “just not a conversation we want to get into” and that “everyone has their own approach to their faith.” Out of its 37,000 student applications this fall, 134 students who failed to show proof of vaccination or submit an exemption were turned away.

Following the FDA approval, the University of Louisiana System, which has nine campuses, announced students would need to receive a religious, medical or philosophical exemption to skip the shot. UL System President Jim Henderson said there likely would have been twice as many exemption requests had the system required the vaccine before FDA approval.

“Every step chips away at hesitancy,” he said. “If we approach this in an instructional and educational way, students are going to be receptive to that for the most part.”

According to the U.S. Department of Education, there are nearly 4,000 degree-granting academic institutions in the country, leaving approximately 72% without mandates. The reasoning for not implementing a mandate varies, including the inability to issue one due to political leaders blocking them. However, whether vaccines are required or not, enrollment rates are a significant concern across the board.

Although enrollment rates have been trending downward since 2012, the pandemic catapulted the decline. According to preliminary research from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, numbers show there was a 3.4% drop in undergraduate enrollment last year. This fall, that number dropped slightly to 3.2%.

Doug Shapiro, who runs the nonprofit research center, said if the preliminary numbers hold up, the last two years of undergrad decline would be the largest two-year decrease in at least half a century.

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