Barriers to Student Success: Vaccination Mandates
By Devinder Malhotra, Chancellor, Minnesota State
September 15, 2021
Each year, the start of Fall semester is a time for our students, our faculty, and our staff to look forward to a new academic year. But this year, along with anticipation and excitement, we also face continuing uncertainty about the COVID-19 pandemic. While we all have hoped to enter a post-pandemic transition, increasing case numbers remind us that this pandemic isn’t over. As has been the case since the outset of the pandemic, we are focused on two priorities: protecting the health and safety of our students, faculty, and staff, and supporting our students as they continue progress towards their educational goals.
To that end – supporting our students as they continue progress towards their educational goals – we have not imposed a widespread vaccine mandate for all students at the colleges and universities of Minnesota State. We are pursuing a dual approach of requiring vaccination/testing for certain groups of students and taking a very aggressive posture of education, awareness, and facilitation around vaccinations. We believe that such an approach will be most effective in raising vaccination rates.
While broad mandates may be effective for some institutions, our approach recognizes that Minnesota State is a complex system of 30 colleges and seven universities with diverse and unique student populations and educational goals. We want the higher education experience accessible and possible for every student from every culture, every part of the state, and from every walk of life. Engaging students after they are with us is the best chance of putting students on the path to vaccinations.
The key difference between Minnesota State and other institutions is who our students are. Minnesota State serves more students in underrepresented groups than all other higher education options in the state, combined. This includes:
- More than 42,000 first-generation students whose parents have not completed a four-year degree. In these families there often is no expectation the student will attend or complete college, and obstacles can easily knock them off their educational path.
- We serve more than 68,000 low-income students for whom the time and energy of pursuing a degree often unsuccessfully competes with meeting one’s basic needs such as food and housing.
- Over 70,000 of our students are age 25 or older and must balance going to college with the demands of jobs and raising a family, such as helping a child with distance learning while simultaneously working from home. These students’ lives are so complex that it’s often their own educational goals that get put on hold while they attend to what they consider more pressing matters.
The significance of these barriers becomes abundantly clear in the context of Equity 2030, our organizing principle that guides us to work to close the educational equity gaps at every Minnesota State college and university by the year 2030. The same groups that have been disproportionately impacted by educational equity gaps have also been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. It is both a moral imperative and a broader economic imperative to remove barriers that stand in the way of student success.
While we are compelled to do everything possible to ensure success for all our students, doing so also means we must do everything possible to make it easy for our students to choose to get vaccinated. Following are just a few examples of how we are doing just that:
- Our colleges and universities are each partnering with local public health or community resources to provide the necessary information and host numerous vaccine clinics on campus.
- Our colleges and universities are offering community conversations that provide forums where the campus community can raise questions about COVID-19 vaccination with a medical professional and/or trusted messenger.
- We are implementing the #MinnStateVaxChallenge social media and campus awareness campaigns to increase awareness and connect students to resources for answering their questions or provide them with information.
- Many of our colleges are offering incentives for those who are vaccinated – ranging from gift cards to the campus bookstore or dining options, school apparel, and entry into drawings for scholarships to help with tuition or books.
- We also have made vaccination or weekly testing a requirement for students who choose to live in on-campus housing, participate in intercollegiate athletics, or other extra-curricular group activities where social distancing is not possible.
Going forward, our colleges and universities will stay open and deliver instruction in-person, online, and in hybrid mode, with the safety protocols in place to ensure our students can safely continue their progress towards their educational goals. As the pandemic evolves, our best approach to helping our students continue their progress is to remain flexible and adaptable, stress the importance of vaccinations to ensure an uninterrupted academic experience, increase awareness of the benefits and reduce barriers associated with the vaccine, and have in place appropriate safety protocols with minimal burdens on our students.