May 24, 2021 - Health

Colleges navigate vaccine hurdles for international students

Illustration of a syringe checking off boxes on a list
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

As more colleges and universities announce COVID vaccine requirements for the fall, they are facing additional logistical challenges figuring out what that will look like for international students.

Why it matters: Ensuring international students can get their vaccines is one big piece of safely reopening campuses — which, in turn, could also help reverse some of the dramatic enrollment declines U.S. colleges saw due to COVID-19.

  • More than 1 million international students were enrolled in the 2019-2020 school year at more than 4,000 accredited institutions in the U.S., according to data tracker Open Doors.
  • "This is a big issue for the bottom lines of predominantly smaller, non-profit, regional, private institutions," Chris Marsicano, of the College Crisis Initiative, says. "So they’ve got to find ways to get students back into the classroom especially international students where they rely on tuition and revenue."

The big picture: Universities are working to answer questions like whether they have the resources to line up appointments for an FDA-authorized vaccine once international students arrive in the U.S., as well as how early an international student must fly to the U.S. before the semester begins to get their shots.

  • Other details include working out whether vaccines received in students' home countries will suffice for vaccine mandates and how students will be able to prove vaccination before the fall semester.

Colleges have said vaccine discussions will be a case-by-case basis.

  • Some institutions like the New Jersey Institute of Technology and the University of Buffalo say students may require revaccination.
  • Schools like Boston University and John Hopkins University recently announced that all vaccines approved worldwide are acceptable, but will not provide students with a shot.
  • If schools are very dependent on international students' tuition dollars, they may see a benefit to waiving the vaccine requirement entirely for this group if the logistics are too complicated, Melissa Whatley, assistant professor of international and global education at the School for International Training’s Graduate Institute, tells Axios.
  • Offering the vaccine once students arrive is a "definite draw for a prospective international student," she added.

What's happening: At Princeton University, international students were offered the Johnson & Johnson in April before returning overseas where it may have been difficult to receive an FDA-authorized vaccine.

What to watch: Other countries are not nearly as far along in vaccination as the U.S. Shots are often scarce for the general public or if they are, many international students are not qualified yet due to their age or other factors.

  • In India, which has a large population of international students, has a WHO-accepted vaccine but is experiencing a shortage that may last months due to the country's devastating outbreaks, per the Financial Times.
  • International students from developing countries also face varied vaccine availability, where their nation is largely dependent on neighboring countries that manufacture supplies like the U.S., China or Russia.

The bottom line: It's another example of the complexities schools are facing as they seek to assure students and faculty it's safe to get back to business.

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