In its third collaboration with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM), data from the MyVoice National Poll of Youth shines in a new national report that provides recommendations on how to stem the spread of COVID-19 infections on college campuses. The report, Encouraging Protective COVID-19 Behaviors among College Students, is a “rapid consultation” that offer lessons learned from the 2020 fall semester regarding COVID-19 testing and guidance on student behavior, as college administrators plan for the 2021 spring semester. Quotes from MyVoice participants feature predominantly in its first pages, reflecting the lived experience of college students across the country:

“It has made it very difficult to see anyone whatsoever. I am stuck in my college dorm and I do not see anyone ever, which is very bad for people.”


“I think I will catch COVID in the next few months because university is starting soon and I do not think that the school has implemented great social distancing rules for lecture halls.”


“I’ve chosen to eat outside. I’ve chosen to do the things that I think are good that I also like to do. I felt like that was a risk versus a reward type of thing.”


“For me it’s more of who am I affecting the most. When it comes to, like, my grandparents or people at the grocery store, I don’t want—even if do have it, and if I don’t have any symptoms, why spread it to other people?”


“I think it’s just hard, because nobody has the same message, and I feel like since it’s a pandemic, and since it’s a health issue, it shouldn’t be about confusing messages….[That] makes me not really want to listen to anything.”

Encouraging Protective COVID-19 Behaviors Among College Students explores how schools can encourage students to adopt behaviors that help prevent spread of the virus, such as mask wearing and physical distancing. Findings from developmental psychology and brain research about adolescent and young adult behavior can guide campus leaders: Many adolescents and young adults are socially driven, with a strong desire for reward and acceptance. Identity, agency, and autonomy are centrally important during the college years — and exploration and risk taking are a normative part of development.

Making a behavior easy to start and rewarding to repeat, tying a behavior to existing habits, providing alternatives to unwanted behaviors, and providing specific descriptions of desired behaviors are strategies that campus leaders can employ to make it more likely that protective behaviors will become habitual for students. Examples include tying mask wearing to students’ phone use, or giving students guidance to establish and maintain the health of their own “social pods.” The document also shares communication strategies, including emphasizing college students’ sense of responsibility, building on their sense of activism, and considering how they make decisions about risk-taking.

Undertaken by the Societal Experts Action Network, Encouraging Protective COVID-19 Behaviors Among College Students was sponsored by the National Science Foundation. COVID-19 Testing Strategies for Colleges and Universities was sponsored by the David and Lucille Packard Foundation and conducted in collaboration with the Standing Committee on Emerging Infectious Diseases and 21st Century Health Threats, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response. The National Academies are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine. They operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln.

Cite the Report: National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2020. Encouraging Protective COVID-19 Behaviors among College Students. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Find out more on past National Academies x MyVoice collaborations, including: Promoting Positive Adolescent Health Behaviors and Outcomes: Thriving in the 21st Century as well as an interactive site and live listening session with MyVoice representatives.

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