Kent State students stroll along campus in this fall 2020 file photo. The university recently launched a vaccine incentive program.

Ohio colleges introduce vaccine incentives

There’s a million-dollar question hovering around college campuses: Will COVID-19 vaccinations be required this fall?

As of now, the answer varies. More than 600 campuses across the country are reportedly requiring the vaccine. The majority of those are in states that swung for now-President Joe Biden, a Democrat, in the 2020 presidential election.

But only three of those colleges are in Northeast Ohio — Case Western Reserve University, the College of Wooster and the Cleveland Institute of Art. Each is a private institution. All offered or indicated plans to offer a chance to apply for medical or religious exemptions.

The rest are encouraging campus communities to get vaccinated. Some are incentivizing the process, launching drawings for prizes if vaccine documentation is shared.

It comes as a rise in cases and the Delta variant could threaten to impact what was hoped to be a return to “normal” in higher education after the pandemic brought on widespread enrollment declines and an uptick of online classes. Just 44% of 18-to-24-year-olds nationwide are fully vaccinated. Only those 17 years old and under have a lower rate. Being fully vaccinated can prevent getting COVID-19 and significantly reduces the chances of serious illness and/or death, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Last month, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine signed House Bill 244. The legislation bars public K-12 schools and higher education institutions from mandating vaccines that haven’t received full approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The current slate only is authorized for emergency use.

The law doesn’t go into effect until October. Public colleges could institute vaccines for all between now and then. They aren’t, though.

Ohio State University’s vaccination rate currently sits around 70%. But president Kristina Johnson said last month it’s suspected the rate could be higher if more people reported their information, so the state’s flagship university is now requiring people to indicate their status as well as offering an incentive program for students, faculty and staff.

More than $50,000 in prizes will be awarded in four weekly drawings for those who get all doses of the shot, upload information to an online portal and complete an entry form. The effort is being paid for by the university’s strategic cash reserves.

OSU has used a “carrot and stick” approach throughout the entire pandemic, said Melissa Shivers, Ohio State’s senior vice president for student life. Strategies around testing, mask wearing, and now getting the vaccine center on the idea that good behavior gets rewarded.

“Students are more responsive when you can give them a goal and give them the reason why something is happening or why they need to respond in a certain way,” Shivers said.

Leaders at Northeast Ohio’s largest university have a similar approach when it comes to incentives. Kent State officials recently told students about twice-weekly drawings that will run through mid-October for vaccinated individuals who share their status. The university also recently reintroduced indoor mask requirements, as did the University of Akron.

There’s a laundry list of available prize offerings at Kent, including expensive headphones and Apple watches. Plus, the region’s largest university broke out the big-ticket items: chances to win a semester of room and board or a semester of free tuition.

The university is tapping into its federal relief money, as well as arranging strategic partnerships with places like Barnes and Noble, to pay for the efforts.

That tuition offer caught the attention of incoming freshmen Nataliya Kallergis. The 18-year-old student already got vaccinated earlier this year.

After the announcement, she noticed more chatter about the topic in a group chat of other soon-to-be students. The threat of a potential lockdown or a move to online classes, as happened last fall, isn’t what they want for their kickoff to college life.

She assumes most Kent students are already vaccinated or are planning on it, she said, but knows that not all of her peers will be able or interested.

“If they’re really too into the conspiracy theories of the vaccine, they’re not going to do anything about it,” Kallergis said.

The intention at Walsh University isn’t to use incentives to coerce the students who have no intention of getting the vaccine, said Teresa Fox, chief public affairs officer. Officials there are using a drawing that offers 10 spring tuition scholarships to target those who might just not have gotten around to it yet.

“We’re hoping that this will get them a little bit inspired,” said Fox.

About 418 students have told the university they’ve received at least one dose, roughly a quarter of the 1,700 students Fox said attend in-person classes on the North Canton campus. But every student, every shot, counts. The university is also using some of its federal relief funding to pay for its incentive program.

The “Cav Nation Vaccination” scholarship announcement didn’t garner much attention when announced via email in July. Things changed when it went on the campus’ Instagram account. Fox said about 100 students submitted the form that night.

The comments section of that post received both praise and pushback. Walsh isn’t alone. Other colleges’ social accounts get flooded with similar comments on similar posts.

“The opinions sort of echo what is kind of a reflection of society right now,” Fox said. “It’s very polarized. There’s people with very strong opinions on either side, so the best thing we can do is just constantly communicate what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.”

And when it comes to creating what’s essentially a lottery system, many legalities are involved. A FAQ on Ohio State’s website rattles off related questions: Will these prizes be taxed? How do I enter without a computer? The official rules clock in at four pages.

“We consulted with a number of people to make sure that we were staying within the guardrails, but also providing the types of incentives that we knew our students, faculty and staff would be interested in,” said OSU’s Shrivers.

On a federal level, the White House introduced what’s been dubbed the “COVID-19 College Vaccine Challenge” as a way to offer guidance to universities as they encourage vaccinations. Nearly 20 colleges in Ohio have signed on.

Amy Morona covers higher education for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus.

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