An illustration of a nurse holding a syringe for a vaccine.

If your child is a college student—or soon to be one—making sure he or she is fully vaccinated is critically important, especially for those who will be living in a dorm or other shared space.

That’s because large groups of people in close proximity provide the ideal conditions for spreading diseases, including those that are vaccine-preventable.

“Vaccines can keep students from contracting serious illnesses and keep them from missing classes,” says Sarah Van Orman, M.D., associate vice provost for student affairs and chief student health officer at the University of Southern California.

Keep in mind that the school’s vaccination requirements might not be enough to protect your child. Many universities—especially public institutions—follow their state’s requirements, which might not include the full list of vaccines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Barring any medical reasons not to get vaccinated, here are the four key vaccines for college.

Bacterial Meningitis

The meningococcal conjugate vaccine covers some of the most common forms of bacterial meningitis, a devastating disease that almost always requires hospitalization and can cause permanent disability or death within hours of first feeling sick. College students living in dorms are an at-risk group.

“Starting in mid-adolescence through college, this is an age group in which this disease is most common,” says William Schaffner, M.D., professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

More on Vaccines

Pediatricians usually give this vaccine at age 11 or 12 and a booster at 16. Those who missed either one of these can catch up before dorm move-in day.

When it comes to vaccines for college, be aware that there’s a second meningitis vaccine—the serogroup B meningococcal vaccine—that prevents another strain of the disease, known as the B strain. Between 2013 and 2018, outbreaks of meningitis B occurred at 10 universities in the U.S., causing 39 illnesses and 2 deaths, according to a 2019 study in Emerging Infectious Diseases.

Currently, outbreaks are ongoing at Rutgers University in New Jersey, Columbia University in New York, and San Diego State University. The CDC recommends that during an outbreak, anyone at risk of contracting the disease be vaccinated. 

Tetanus, Diphtheria, and Pertussis

Youngsters routinely get vaccinated against these diseases as infants and young children. And the CDC recommends that kids ages 11 and 12 receive a booster, called Tdap.

Rising college freshmen who never received the Tdap booster should get a single dose of this vaccine for college.


The sexually transmitted infection human papillomavirus is so common that almost all sexually active men and women get it at some point in their lives if they haven’t been vaccinated, though most don’t even know they are infected.

HPV infections can lead to cancer of the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and throat. But the HPV vaccine protects against it.

“It’s our first explicitly anticancer vaccine,” Schaffner says.

Still, only about 49 percent of adolescents were up to date on the HPV vaccine in 2017, and only 66 percent of 13 to 17 year olds had had their first dose of the vaccine series. Two doses of the HPV vaccine, 6 to 12 months apart, are recommended at age 11 or 12.

If your student didn’t have the vaccines earlier, doing so for college is a must. Note that those who started the series after age 15 need three doses rather than two.

But don’t worry if you haven’t kept to the CDC’s schedule for the HPV vaccine, says Isabel Valdez, P.A., an instructor of physician assistant candidates at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

“You can pick up where you left off,” she notes.

Recently, the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices voted to update the agency’s guidelines on who should receive catch-up vaccines, which had previously been recommended in girls up to age 26 and boys up to age 22. The committee agreed that all people should receive catch-up vaccines through age 26, and that vaccination can be discussed as an option for adults ages 27 to 45. (The vaccine is most effective if it’s given before a person is first exposed to HPV, however.)


Influenza, or the flu, can make even a normally healthy young person very sick with high fever, muscle aches, cough, and headaches. During the most recent flu season, an especially virulent strain of the virus caused strikingly high numbers of severe cases of the illness.

And catching the flu may affect students academically: Researchers at the University of Minnesota found that many students stricken by the flu missed class or did poorly on a test.

The seasonal flu vaccine helps protect against the flu—and may mean a milder case for those who get sick anyway, according to the CDC.

The flu shot usually becomes available in late September or early October (but you might start seeing advertisements for it as early as August). 

If your student attends college far from home, he or she should be able to get the vaccine in the campus health center. Students may also be able to get the shot at a local pharmacy, which our experts say is just as safe as getting it at a doctor’s office.

Valdez says it’s especially important for students with asthma to get the flu shot.

Students who have asthma have a higher risk of developing upper respiratory infections that can affect their lungs,” she says.

Do College Students Need MMR?

In the U.S., almost everyone receives the CDC-recommended two doses of MMR, the vaccine against measles, mumps, and rubella, as young children. The MMR affords good protection against these diseases, and routine vaccination with a third dose of MMR isn’t necessary for all students.

Still, there are some circumstances in which you’ll want your student to get a dose of MMR before he or she arrives on campus. If for some reason your child didn’t receive MMR vaccination at a young age, they should have two doses, separated by 28 days. 

Here’s why: Although most recent measles outbreaks haven’t been on college campuses, they are considered high-risk settings. Mumps is sometimes a concern for college students as well. Between 2015 and 2017, two large outbreaks at universities in Iowa and Illinois caused several hundred students to get sick

The CDC usually recommends that people in communities with an active mumps outbreak receive an additional dose of MMR. A 2017 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that a mumps booster in an outbreak significantly reduced the risk of infection. For measles outbreaks, the CDC recommends people who aren’t adequately vaccinated catch up, but people generally don’t need an extra dose of MMR if they're already immune to measles.

Editor's Note: Catherine Roberts contributed reporting to this story.