Although 2021 graduates only recently departed campus, universities across America have begun debating whether to require the COVID-19 vaccine when students return this fall. Evangelical Christians, a group with some of the highest rates of vaccine skepticism, are especially watching to see what faith-based and evangelical colleges decide.
So far, reports Christianity Today, only one of the 140 member schools of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) says it will require students to be immunized against COVID-19. That school, Seattle Pacific University, says it wants to protect the surrounding community and also reinforce its reputation as an institution that’s serious about science.
Other schools, says a CCCU spokesperson, indicate they’ll “strongly encourage” the vaccine but ultimately let students decide for themselves.
Factors Evangelical Colleges Must Consider
For most evangelical colleges, the decision about requiring vaccines is based on money. Without large endowments, private schools depend heavily on tuition and must maintain enrollment numbers.
Marc Smithers, an administrator at Houghton College in New York, tells Christianity Today, “If something like a COVID-19 vaccine requirement is going to be the thing that ultimately brings [students] to decide to go somewhere else, I don’t want to be responsible for driving them away.”
On the other hand, says Smithers, vaccinated students shouldn’t have to “bear the cost” of their unvaccinated classmates’ “choice and conviction.” So Houghton’s unvaccinated students may face different guidelines, such as regular testing for coronavirus. “There are aspects of living in community that are always going to be frustrating,” Smithers notes.
Several administrators indicate their schools will encourage dialogue among students. Some campuses have been hosting vaccine clinics; others are sponsoring group discussions about faith, ethics and science.
Despite its vaccine mandate, Seattle Pacific will allow religious and medical exemptions on a case-by-case basis. But to receive one, students must describe their reasoning and provide a supporting letter from a pastor or church leader. “We have a history of being a pretty wide tent within the Christian faith tradition,” says administrator Nate Mouttet, “and we’re making room for that once again.”
Vaccine Mandates Remain Controversial
According to a recent survey of more than 1,000 college students, about 88% say they plan to get the COVID-19 vaccine, and almost three-quarters say shots should be mandatory. But a vocal minority of students say their schools can’t tell them what to do.
“I’m not anti-vax; I’m anti-mandate,” says Sara Razi, a student at Rutgers, a public university in New Jersey that’s requiring shots. “My education should not be restricted based on my personal decision to receive the COVID-19 vaccine,” she says. “Vaccines are a personal and a private choice.” Razi and other Rutgers students protested the mandate during an on-campus rally this week.
Hesitancy doesn’t necessarily mean people don’t want to get the vaccine, says Brittany Kmush, a public health professor at Syracuse. “This pandemic has become so politicized, and it’s really unfortunate that health outcomes have been tied to political parties.”
Providing information and encouraging dialogue is key, Kmush adds, whether at colleges or in other settings. “Just the opportunity to listen to people and give them a place to voice their concerns—that would be helpful,” she says.