College students were the subject of much scrutiny during last year’s COVID-19 surge, as many blamed their seemingly careless attitude about partying and social distancing as a major cause in the virus’s spread. However, new data shows that this reckless viewpoint has changed significantly in the past year, if it was ever entirely true at all.

Regardless of region, political affiliation, or even school rules, the majority of college students say they will voluntarily wear a mask at all times on campus this fall and that recommendations from the CDC and the most important factor in this decision. In contrast, a small but determined percentage of students plan to remain unvaccinated and unmasked when returning to school.

Some quick callouts from the data include:

  • 82% plan to be vaccinated before returning to campus this fall
  • 63% will voluntarily wear a mask in various campus settings
    • This includes 62% of Republican students and 72% of Democratic students
  • Non-vaccinated students report the lowest level of intended mask wearing at just 43%

We break down some additional findings from the survey below:

Republican Students Are More Vaccine-Hesitant But As Likely to Wear Masks

Students that identified with the Republican party are less likely than their Democratic counterparts to be vaccinated before returning to campus, with 20% saying they have no plans to receive the vaccine before the fall compared to 7% of Democratic students. 20% of Republican-aligned students also report that recommendations from the CDC are not an important factor to them when making a decision about face coverings, mirroring trends in Repubican-held states across the country.

However, 62% of this group also stated that they plan to voluntarily wear masks across various campus settings regardless of rules at their respective institutions, signaling a continued caution toward the virus as well as concern for their own and others’ safety. This contrasts with the population of many vaccine-averse, Republican states who have eschewed mask wearing and were among the first to rollback mask mandates.

College Students Plan to Party Smarter

The mental image of college students swarming bars and dorm room parties, unmasked and spreading germs, may not be accurate this year. When asked about different campus settings and their likelihood of mask wearing, the category with the highest “yes” percentage was actually indoor parties at 70%. This is higher than the other more visible settings including:

  • In the classroom – 66%
  • In dorm hallways and common areas – 61%
  • Outside on campus – 56%

Because most parties are likely not supervised by the institution, this indicates that college students are willing to wear masks while socializing out of concern for their own wellbeing and that of their fellow students as opposed to punishment for breaking school rules.

Non-Vaccinated Students Also Make Up Lowest Intended Mask Wearing Percentage

Though the news from this survey is mainly positive, there is a small but serious group that could pose a risk of new COVID outbreaks on campus. 14% of students reported that they don’t intend to be vaccinated before returning to campus in the fall, and many of them also don’t intend to wear masks, even if required by their schools. The intended mask-wearing percentages by settings are below, and are around 25 points lower than the vaccinated group:

  • At indoor parties – 49% (vs 75% of vaccinated students)
  • In the classroom – 44% (vs 70% of vaccinated students)
  • In dorm hallways and common areas – 40% (vs 67% of vaccinated students)
  • Outside on campus – 37% (vs 61% of vaccinated students)

Region Not an Indicative Factor When it Comes to COVID Precautions on Campus

As with political affiliation, college students are not as divided as the nation has been this past year and a half. Students in COVID hotspots that are typically more vaccine- and mask-averse reported that they were nearly as likely to take precautions on campus this fall as those in more vaccinated areas.

  • Students in the Midwest and South reported that 80% will be vaccinated and 61% will wear a mask on campus regardless of institution rules
  • This is similar to rates for students in the West and Northeast, at 85% vaccinated before returning and 66% reporting they will wear a mask across campus

Majority Rules When it Comes to Face Coverings

When asked if the actions of the majority affected their decisions to wear masks (for example, everyone in a room either is or is not wearing a mask), 60% responded that they are either sometimes or often influenced by the majority.

This age group appears receptive to the opinions of others, as 42% also report that either advice from their institution or recommendations from friends and family are more important to their decisions on wearing masks than what the CDC says. Based on this data, most students will likely follow the same precautions the majority does when returning to campus.

An age group that is often seen as irresponsible actually appears more in-tune with expert recommendations and responsible mask wearing than much of the country. Regardless of region or political affiliation (and a small minority of students), the majority of those college-bound this fall seem determined to crush the spread of COVID on campus through a combination of vaccinations and mask wearing.

Survey Methodology

All data found within this report is based on a survey commissioned by and conducted online by the survey platform Pollfish. In total, 2,000 Americans who plan to attend an in-person higher education institution in the fall of 2021 were surveyed. This survey was conducted on July 9, 2021.

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