It’s not new for colleges to require vaccinations. Most four-year institutions in the country (between 80 and 90 percent) require at least the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine, which most importantly protects against measles. While measles is rarely fatal in young adults, it is one of the most infectious diseases known to science and has long-term effects which can range from immunodeficiency to seizures. In the tightly packed and cohabitating environment of a university, it would spread like wildfire without the blanket immunity of a thoroughly vaccinated population.
Now, as the U.S. passes a quarter of the population vaccinated against COVID-19, the debate rages in universities about whether or not they can mandate COVID-19 vaccines for on-campus students.
The answer is complicated. Generally, it’s yes. Colleges and universities in most states have the authority to dictate vaccination requirements. For state schools in some places, they have to go through the channel of state law, but most states already support this. The fact that all current COVID-19 vaccines are only conditionally approved by the FDA Is another wrinkle in the process.
“Most universities have the power to require vaccines,” Dorit Reiss, a law professor at the UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, explained to NPR. “But it does depend on what the college can do generally on vaccines and what they’ve done in the past.”
The goal, of course, is to keep staff and students safe. Some schools are choosing rigorous testing as an alternative to vaccination, such as the University of California San Diego. When campus student housing fully reopens in fall, any unvaccinated student will be required to undergo weekly testing, which can be a hassle.
“I often refer to these as soft mandates,” said Reiss, who is studying the colleges to require vaccinations. “You can choose not to vaccinate, but there are going to be some consequences. That incentivizes vaccination.”