For Colleges, Vaccine Mandates Often Depend on Which Party Is in Power

Hoping for a return to normal, more than 400 colleges and universities are requiring students to be vaccinated for Covid-19. Almost all are in states that voted for President Biden.

By Rukmini Callimachi

For more than 400 colleges and universities, it is being billed as the ticket to a normal year on campus: Require all students to be vaccinated for the coronavirus before they can matriculate next fall.

From just one university in March, to a dozen by the first week of April, the trickle has become a tide over the past month — depending on just where students are attending school.

In a divided nation, college vaccine mandates are mostly following familiar fault lines. As of this weekend, only 34 — roughly 8 percent — are in states that voted for Donald J. Trump, according to a tracker created by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Nine of those were added on Friday, when Indiana University and its satellite campuses became rare public universities in a Republican-controlled state to mandate vaccines. Though the 400 campuses are only about 10 percent of the nation’s roughly 4,000 colleges and universities, experts say the political gap is likely to persist.

With many colleges facing falling enrollments and financial pressure, the decision whether to require vaccinations can have huge consequences. Particularly in Republican-controlled states, college presidents are weighing a delicate equation — part safety, part politics, part peer pressure and part economic self-interest.

On weekly conference calls with presidents of other colleges, the subject has become a frequent topic of discussion, said Katie Conboy, the president of Saint Mary’s College, a private, all-women’s college near South Bend, Ind.

College presidents, worried that students might respond to a mandate by enrolling someplace else without one, described a feeling of safety in numbers.

“People are waiting for a tipping point,” Dr. Conboy said. “They’re not saying, ‘We’re going to be out on the leading edge of this,’ but we are watching and waiting and hoping it will make sense for us.”

Indiana, a state where sheriffs in multiple counties refused to enforce the governor’s mask mandate, now has at least 14 campuses that are requiring the immunization, the most of any Republican-controlled state.

A total of 15 conservative-led states, including Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, Mississippi and Alabama, do not have a single university that has announced a vaccine requirement.

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