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Upon my return to campus, I agree to:
Wear a mask at all times in public.
Wash my hands thoroughly and regularly.
Maintain six feet of distance from other people outside of my household.
Not attend social gatherings.

Is this contract, or others like it, enough to keep campuses and communities safe from COVID-19?

Higher education institutions are a high-risk environment for COVID-19 transmission. Indeed, in late July, The New York Times determined that at least 6,600 COVID-19 cases had already been linked to about 270 American colleges even before the academic year began. Yet thousands of colleges and universities are reopening this fall with new policies and practices in place to prevent COVID-19 transmission.

Among others, those efforts include reducing the number of students in residence halls, remodeling classrooms, requiring daily health assessments and providing routine testing. In addition, institutions are mandating that students sign social contracts like the one above (also called pledges, agreements and compacts) in which students agree to perform various behaviors to reduce their risk of acquiring and transmitting the virus.

We acknowledge that being a college administrator in the time of COVID-19 is a formidable task, presenting innumerable decisions with no precedents or easy answers. But the use of student contracts to stop the spread of COVID-19 is particularly divisive. Some people warn of college students’ proclivity toward risk taking and increasingly common reports of COVID-19 outbreaks on college campuses, often due to social gatherings. Others argue that contracts give students the opportunity to step up and act responsibly so they can safely continue their collegiate experience.

We contend, however, that relying on contracts to change students’ behavior is problematic because such contracts do not adhere to accepted scientific and evidence-based practices.

There is a substantial research base about using contracts for behavior modification. Typically referred to as "behavioral contracts" in the scholarly literature, contracts originated as a therapeutic technique in the 1960s and, over time, became an established behavior-change strategy in health care and public health interventions. Organizations and individuals have used contracts successfully to improve multiple health behaviors across diverse populations, including physical activity, healthy eating, substance use prevention and chronic disease self-management.

At first glance, instituting student contracts to encourage COVID-19 protective behaviors may seem like a good idea. But there is more to the story.

For starters, contracts are not uniformly effective at changing behavior. Several best practices have been identified in the literature, which has shown that contracts are most likely to work under the following circumstances:

  • They address a specific and measurable behavior;
  • There is monitoring and accountability;
  • They have quickly executed rewards (if the behavior is performed) and consequences (if it is not), both of which are tailored to the individual;
  • They are time-bound; and
  • They are signed by people who are already motivated to change their behavior.

But the COVID-19 student contracts we have seen to date address broad behaviors and lack positive and negative reinforcement, monitoring, and a clear-cut time frame.

A systematic review also found that while contracts may be useful in the short term, they are usually not effective at generating long-term behavioral change. Given that the end of the COVID-19 pandemic is not yet in sight, it is safe to assume that recent college contracts may apply indefinitely. Furthermore, administrators trying to reduce high-risk drinking and tobacco use on college campuses have found that enforcement is particularly important for institutional policies to be successful. Yet many student contracts lack clarity about what enforcement, if any, will be implemented.

Contracts are also more likely to work when they are mindful of the environmental context. The classroom is only one aspect of most students’ college experience. Cultivating relationships and establishing a sense of belonging are also crucial parts of this important developmental period. Returning students are coming back to their campuses after a tumultuous spring semester and summer, finally able to see their friends again after several months. Incoming students are experiencing college life for the first time, with most arriving with few or no connections. Add to all this the reality of COVID fatigue, university assurances to students that the campus is safe enough to reopen and messages at the national level that young people are practically immune from the effects of COVID-19. The result is that, more than likely, contracts will not yield enough influence to impact students’ COVID-19 preventive behaviors, particularly in their current form.

Three Recommendations

So, what are colleges and universities to do?

If administrators are adamant about reopening their campus doors and instituting COVID-19 student contracts, those contracts should follow the established best practices as closely as possible. That said, it may be difficult for institutions to provide this level of contract personalization with large numbers of students. We therefore offer three key suggestions for campus decision makers regarding students’ behavior this fall.

First, contracts should not be the sole behavioral strategy. Instead, they should be one of many efforts intended to support students’ behavior. Colleges are making multiple changes to campus spaces to make them safer places to live, work and learn. They should take the same kind of multipronged approach with behavioral initiatives.

Second, until there is a vaccine, we are all dependent on people’s behavior to reduce the toll of COVID-19. As a result, colleges should call upon their behavioral scientists and make them integral members of any planning efforts. Behavioral scientists have expertise in understanding people’s decision making and behavior when it comes to health and safety -- and what is needed to foster behavioral change based on sound theory and principles, as well as how to develop initiatives tailored to specific collegiate populations and settings.

Third, campus decision makers must engage with students. Students are the end users of the programs and policies, so garnering their perspective is essential. Partnering with students who represent the diversity of the campus can provide valuable insights into what they will and will not be responsive to.

All of this comes with the caveat that effective behavior-change interventions increase the likelihood of behavior change but do not guarantee it. No behavior-change intervention can be foolproof. Humans and their decision making are simply too complex, particularly in the current circumstances.

At this point, over 6.5 million COVID-19 cases and almost 200,000 deaths have occurred in the United States, with rates continuing to climb, and there have been more than 88,000 known COVID-19 cases on college campuses. With roughly 20 million students, four million faculty and 6,000 institutions of higher education nationwide, not to mention the communities surrounding each campus, too much is at stake to not have as robust a plan as possible.

Although the idea of using contracts to support our expectations for students’ behavior is not inherently a bad idea, it is certainly not enough to accomplish the tall order confronting colleges. This is a precarious time for higher education, and science-based solutions are needed. Depending so heavily on student contracts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 is not one of them.

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