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The U.S. still has roughly 4,000 degree-granting postsecondary institutions, but the number has been shrinking for nearly a decade. Colleges acknowledge historically low birthrates — lower even than during the Great Depression — mean increasingly stiff competition for fewer students.

On the student side of the equation, academic advisors counsel their advisees to make their college decisions by figuring out “what’s important to them” and selecting schools that “align with those priorities.”

As it happens, COVID has confronted would-be college students who are trying to separate the wheat from the chaff with a new and pressing question: Does the college of their choice side with health freedom — or has it chosen to ignore the Nuremberg principle of informed consent by recklessly mandating experimental COVID shots?

Lawyers caution “universities should tread carefully and consult legal counsel … before making this critical policy decision,” arguing COVID vaccine mandates could invite a “wave of litigation.”

Ignoring this advice, more than 500 colleges and universities so far have decided to impose vaccine mandates for fall 2021.

Institutions of higher education in vaccine-coercive states like California, Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York — states that in recent years eliminated or threatened to eliminate vaccine exemptions — are among the COVID vaccine mandate ringleaders.

But the list also includes some surprises, including Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Among Georgia’s 70 colleges and universities, for example, only eight are mandating COVID shots — five of those are HBCUs.

HBCUs’ willingness to mandate vaccines not yet licensed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) runs contrary to the wishes of many in the Black community. Proportionately fewer Black Americans (34%) have accepted COVID vaccines compared to White (47%), Hispanic (39%) or Asian Americans (62%) — with many citing the lengthy history of medical racism and experimentation as reasons for caution.

But COVID lockdowns wreaked havoc on HBCU finances, already precarious before the coronavirus. In October, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s strategic award of millions to HBCUs to “bridge medical distrust” perhaps represented an offer “too good to refuse.”

But even at tonier establishments such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania, administrators and professors seem at ease with coercion for students. A law and medical ethics professor at Penn, where endowment assets increased in 2020, callously told prospective students in late June if they are unwilling to get the unapproved injections, they “don’t have to go here.”

Unconvincing benefits

To tarnish clear-thinking young adults’ reputations, the mainstream media have been pejoratively associating 18- to 34-year-olds (Gen-Zers and Millennials) who refuse the COVID injections with 1960s-era draft dodgers, calling them “America’s biggest vaccine-dodgers.”

These attacks come despite mounting criticism from all quarters about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) COVID vaccine advice for Gen-Zers in the 12- to 17-year age group.

In late June, the mainstream medical news outlet MedPage Today (ordinarily a vaccine cheerleader) condemned the CDC’s shotgun recommendations for adolescents as being “all wrong” — particularly with regard to vaccine-related heart problems — stating that the agency’s “all-or-nothing, one-size-fits-all binary approach” relies on “outdated COVID-19 risk rates” and fails to maximize benefits and minimize risks.

If surveys tracking COVID vaccine uptake are any indication, many young adults have reached similar conclusions, weighing the shots’ unproven benefits for their age group against the growing toll of life-altering vaccine injuries.

As of June, one survey research organization reported 60% of adult respondents under age 35 were unvaccinated — including 43% who reported being either “unwilling” or “uncertain.” Young adults in the “unwilling” category have remained “resolute in that decision” over time, and even among uncertain under-35’s, “there is little to indicate recent incentive campaigns have moved the needle with this group.”

Money talks

It is not hard to understand why some students may feel the need to comply with coercion from their colleges, particularly if the colleges refuse to honor their religious or medical exemptions.

COVID-era research is describing record levels of anxiety and disillusionment among pandemic-era college students grappling — on an almost daily basis — with uncertainty and the perception that there is “no playbook to turn to.”

With COVID-related policies having destroyed one-third of America’s small businesses in many states and robots coming for many of the jobs that remain, young people are indeed in uncharted territory.

On the other hand, young people should remember their strength in numbers. Colleges and universities have a substantial economic impact on their neighborhoods and municipalities, including through capital investments and consumption of goods and services — but they need students to drive the economic engine.

As of fall 2020, U.S. college students numbered about 20 million — 85% enrolled as undergraduates, and 75% at public institutions. This constitutes a sizeable economic bloc with the power to push back and invent a new playbook.

This influence is already making itself felt. Some families, for example, have rejected colleges’ precipitous switch to often mediocre online learning (with no adjustment in tuition and fees) and have brought lawsuits, demanding refunds.

Others have deferred enrollment. By March 2021, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center was reporting a 5.9% drop in overall undergraduate enrollment (compared to spring 2020) and a 7.2% decline among the “traditional” college-age population of 18- to 20-year-olds who represent the largest tranche of undergraduates.

How students can fight back

There is no reason students and families cannot forge a new educational path while shunning coercive colleges. Students can consider one or more of the following options:

  • Attend a “freedom college” that has publicly pledged to remain mandate-free. At present, 13 states have indicated they will not require college students to be vaccinated against COVID. Arizona’s executive order not only forbids public colleges and universities from requiring students to receive (or prove receipt of) the shots to attend in-person classes, but also nixes other measures — nullifying a policy at one of the state’s leading universities that would have subjected unvaccinated, on-campus students to a daily health check, twice-weekly testing and mask-wearing both indoors and outdoors.
  • Pursue online options. Although some students discovered last year they have a “strong aversion to online learning,” others appreciate the advantages, including in some cases the lower cost. For male undergraduates, spring 2021 enrollment at primarily online institutions was up 3.5% compared to the previous year.
  • Develop an individually tailored learning plan. Drawing inspiration from the experiences of K-12 homeschooling families, some students relish the opportunity to devise their own “mix-and-match” educational plan, combining college courses (perhaps online or at a community college) with independent study, mentorship, internships and/or practical training.This approach allows students to hone important academic skills, such as writing, while developing practical skills useful for basic survival and flexibility in a “gig economy” where diplomas no longer guarantee jobs. These skills might range from website development, video editing and accounting to organic gardening, animal husbandry, cooking, carpentry and auto repair. One student who has adopted this approach said he appreciates not being “boxed in” to mind-numbing general ed requirements and welcomes the opportunity to pursue wider interests than most colleges accommodate.

Commenting on HBCU leaders’ endorsement of Black participation in COVID vaccine clinical trials, an assistant dean at North Carolina State University last year criticized HBCU presidents’ abuse of their soapbox, stating “there’s a power dynamic at play.”

This criticism could be broadened to the 500-plus academic institutions stepping outside of their educational missions to not only endorse, but to mandate, risky, unlicensed medical procedures for young people in the prime of life who, based on convincing scientific data, have everything to lose and nothing to gain from the shots.

According to a reanalysis of young adult deaths attributed to COVID last year, the risk of death for Americans in that age group (ages 25-44) was just 0.0125 percent.

The best thing current and prospective students who object to college coercion can do is to vote with their dollars, proving they can and will determine their own education and future in freedom.