Less than half of US college students know their schools’ vaccination policies, study shows

gloved hands filling a syringe with moderna covid vaccine
Only around half of all university students surveyed accurately knew their university’s COVID-19 vaccination policy, according to a poll by Northeastern and several partner institutions. The survey was taken at the start of the fall semester. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Since returning to college campuses in the fall for in-person learning, only 49% of students accurately understood their university’s COVID-19 vaccination policies, according to a U.S. study by the Covid States Project, a collaborative effort by researchers from Northeastern, Harvard, Northwestern, and Rutgers.

Of particular concern are the unvaccinated students who may be unaware that their schools have vaccine mandates in place, which points to a larger problem of universities’ uneven mandate implementation or enforcement standards, researchers say.

For example, some universities may not require students to submit proof of immunizations, even if the institution mandates shots. Some students have also sought exemptions, taken advantage of vague language, or even filed legal challenges. Complexities in the policies themselves may have also contributed to the disconnect.

‘There are a fair number of uncertain and unvaccinated students in universities that theoretically have mandates,’ says David Lazer, university distinguished professor of political science and computer sciences at Northeastern. ‘That should set off some alarm bells.’ Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

“There are a fair number of uncertain and unvaccinated students in universities that theoretically have mandates,” says David Lazer, university distinguished professor of political science and computer sciences at Northeastern, and one of the researchers who conducted the study. “That should set off some alarm bells.”

Another explanation is that an institution could have a student vaccination requirement for those working or training in lab settings, but not for the entire student population, adds Kristin Lunz Trujillo, a postdoctoral researcher at Northeastern.

The survey of more than 1,000 students at U.S. universities was taken between August and September, the start of the fall semester at most schools. It was the first time that Covid States Project researchers looked explicitly at college students since they began releasing waves of pandemic polls starting in 2020.

Previous topics included parental attitudes toward vaccinating their children, and people’s views on how the nation’s governors and the president of the United States were perceived to be handling the coronavirus.

The latest poll is the most comprehensive view of what’s really happening on campuses by surveying actual college students, says Lazer. “I’m not familiar with anything else that’s come out that has this kind of granular view,” he adds.

Among the other key findings: Approximately half of all enrolled university students attend institutions with some type of COVID-19 vaccine mandate. A little over two-thirds of students stated that they knew their university’s policy, and around two-thirds of them were able to accurately characterize what the policy is.

The survey did not identify institutions by name, but broke them out into different categories according to size and whether they are private or public. Some of the respondents were from Northeastern, Lazer says.

For example, 33% of students surveyed at public institutions said that their university required students to get vaccinated, lower than students at private institutions, where 45% of students said their institution had a requirement.

Similarly, 36% of students at public institutions said their university had a vaccine requirement for faculty or staff, versus 49% of students at private institutions. 

Mask mandates appear to be more widespread than vaccine mandates at universities, the study found. Two-thirds of students at public universities said masks were required, compared to 70% of students at private universities.

The findings are based solely on student-reported policies. Researchers then compared student responses to administrative data on university mandates, as well as information from the National Center for Education Statistics, part of the U.S. Education Department, and the College Crisis Initiative, which tracks pandemic data in higher education.

Much of the difference in universities’ policies is likely related to politics. Students in states with Democratic governors are more likely to say their universities have vaccine and mask mandates than students in states with Republican governors.

Meanwhile, 42% of students with Democratic governors said their university has mandatory student COVID-19 vaccination, compared to only 28% of students with Republican governors. “Universities are in many ways a microcosm of the nation’s larger COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy and resistance to mandates,” Trujillo says.

Northeastern mandates that students, faculty, and staff on its U.S. and Canadian campuses be fully vaccinated. Proof of immunization is required. Weekly testing is also obligatory for people on a U.S. campus, regardless of vaccination status.

The university’s COVID-19 Dashboard shows Northeastern with a vaccination rate of 99.6% for students and 97.7% for faculty and staff. “We are probably among the highest complying universities in the country,” Lazer says.

For media inquiries, please contact media@northeastern.edu.