Colleges step up COVID vaccine incentives, but will they work?

Free classes, 70 scholarships among prizes waiting for students.
By: | July 27, 2021
Photo courtesy of Stetson University

As new concerns over the spread of COVID-19 and the Delta variant grip the nation, and with just weeks remaining before the start of the fall semester, several institutions are stepping up incentive programs for those who are unvaccinated.

The University of Wisconsin, which does not have a vaccine mandate, is offering students at all campuses across the state (except for its hub in Madison) a chance to win 70 scholarships valued at $7,000 apiece, or roughly two thirds of the cost of tuition for the year for in-state residents. In Kansas City, Metropolitan Community College, through a lottery, is actually giving away free classes to students who get COVID doses.

“It’s all-hands-on-deck time,” MCC Chancellor Kimberly Beatty said in a statement. “As a community, we need to get out the message that vaccinations are safe and effective. They save lives and will help turn this pandemic around. As far as incentives go, this is a $348 value — not to mention everything you’ll learn in an MCC course.”

At Metropolitan State, its incentive for a free three-credit class will be good for 1,000 students who get fully vaccinated. It offered a similar prize for 250 students in May and received quite a bit of fanfare as First Lady Jill Biden was on site at one of its clinics. It is also giving away other prizes for employees who get vaccines. Missouri Valley College, meanwhile, is offering a slew of gifts for the vaccinated, including an Xbox, Apple products and the potential to win $2,000 towards tuition.

Under siege from the Delta variant, Missouri has become a hotspot for COVID outbreaks, averaging around 2,400 cases per day after dropping to less than 500 two months ago. The state has one of the lowest fully vaccinated populations in the U.S. at just over 40%.

It is unclear whether vaccine incentive programs actually work. A Boston University study done three weeks ago showed that Ohio’s VAX-a-Million program did not in fact see significant increases over other states that did not have them.

“Our results suggest that state-based lotteries are of limited value in increasing vaccine uptake,” said Dr. Allan Walkey, a physician a professor of medicine at BU. “Therefore, the resources devoted to vaccine lotteries may be more successfully invested in programs that target underlying reasons for vaccine hesitancy and low vaccine uptake.”

Nearly 600  institutions of higher education nationwide have imposed vaccine mandates, but few have imposed them within the past month, instead like the University of Wisconsin, simply encouraging their communities to get vaccinated.

So why not require vaccination?

“We think this is a much better way. We want to get the students buying in,” UW’s interim President Tommy Thompson and former Wisconsin governor said. “I want to get a little bit of rivalry going across the state.”

There is a catch to Wisconsin’s program – a campus must hit 70% of its populations being vaccinated before the payoffs begin, a further incentive to try to get as many students vaccinated as possible. But will it work, and will there be enough time to get there? According to a report in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, only about half of the system’s student population is vaccinated, setting up a potentially dicey environment to start the academic year. In state, roughly 51% have completed vaccine schedules, while the 18-24 group is around 40%.

Campus employees and staff at UW have done their part, with more than 80% having completed vaccine schedules.