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Colleges Are Going Big To Incentivize Student Vaccinations

NOEL KING, HOST:

Colleges are trying to convince their students to get the COVID vaccine with all kinds of incentives - free parking, free ziplining, even free tuition. NPR's Elissa Nadworny covers higher education and has been looking into this. Good morning, Elissa.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: Before we start with the incentives, a lot of colleges are also saying this is non-negotiable, right? You have to be vaccinated.

NADWORNY: That's right. More than 600 colleges are requiring the vaccine for fall. And once we get a full FDA approval on one, that number will probably go up. I should just note that colleges have long required vaccines, so it's not completely new. A few private colleges have announced fees for students who aren't vaccinated. But for the most part, schools are trying positive reinforcements with some pretty flashy incentives. One fun one is, the College of Charleston wants 90% of students vaccinated. When that happens, the school's president is going to sit in a dunk tank and let students take a shot at him.

KING: That is only an incentive for a certain type of kid.

(LAUGHTER)

NADWORNY: Yes.

KING: What else did you find colleges doing?

NADWORNY: Well, the big one, obviously, is that you could win thousands of dollars in tuition costs. So that's happening at a number of places, including Purdue, where 10 vaccinated students could win up to $9,000, which is in-state tuition for a year. Our intern, Sneha Dey, found around the country, students could win football tickets, free laptops. At West Virginia University, they're offering $250 gift cards to Chick-fil-A.

KING: That's a lot of chicken, but I think I'd prefer free tuition, to be frank.

NADWORNY: (Laughter) At Ohio University, students could win a photo shoot, dinner with the men's basketball coach, or - and I love this one - have a drink named after them at an on-campus coffee shop. Of course, campuses are also hosting vaccine clinics at orientation and move-in days to make that shot easy.

KING: Do we know if any of this is actually working to get students vaccinated?

NADWORNY: Well, not all schools are sharing that information. In some cases, they've actually made it voluntary for students to even report their vaccination status. That's the case at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, in a spot where COVID cases are rising. Batool Ibrahim will be a senior there, and she's worried her school's incentives, which include free monthly massages, aren't quite enough.

BATOOL IBRAHIM: I don't know. I'm just realizing you need to push harder. Like, I'm actually very scared to go to class not knowing if I'm sitting next to students that are not vaccinated.

NADWORNY: At Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, the president told me incentives only got them so far. They stalled out at around 70% of the campus vaccinated mid-July. They announced a COVID vaccine then would be required. Today, they're at 95% of the campus either vaccinated or on the way. Here's what Eric Kaler, the university president, told me.

ERIC KALER: Face it. There are people who are procrastinators. There are people who don't want to get a needle in their arm. There are people who believe that they just will not get COVID. I get all of that. A mandate gets most of all three of those populations to go get a shot because they have to. And I think that's really important.

KING: And what's really important is that that mandate worked in this case. You've been looking into colleges and COVID for more than a year. How realistic, do you think, is a normal semester this fall?

NADWORNY: Well, you know, the delta variant is throwing a lot of that back-to-normal talk in question I keep hearing déjà vu over and over again. You know, in recent days, we've seen campus mask mandates return. On Thursday, the University of Texas San Antonio announced they'll start the first three weeks of the semester online. Students I've talked to are excited, but look. There's also a lot of fear that COVID will spread like it did last year and potentially shut things down.

KING: NPR Higher Education Correspondent Elissa Nadworny. Thanks, Elissa. We appreciate your reporting.

NADWORNY: You bet.

(SOUNDBITE OF THURSTON MOORE'S "BREATH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.