Scholarships or prizes? Student vaccine incentives at Pittsburg State and K-State take different approaches

Jason Tidd
Topeka Capital-Journal
Kansas State University and Pittsburg State University have made scholarships and prizes available for vaccinated students.

Two Kansas universities have announced programs to incentivize students to get a COVID-19 vaccination.

Kansas State University announced Thursday that vaccinated students will be entered into weekly drawings for prizes. On Monday, Pittsburg State University announced scholarships for every vaccinated student plus a change at a grand prize.

"We’re doing everything we can to protect our campus," said Howard Smith, provost and vice president for academic affairs at PSU, in a statement. "The more people on our campus vaccinated, the less likely disruptions will happen to our fall operations, students won’t miss as much class or as many activities, and everyone can have a safer, more productive semester."

The incentive programs come as students are moving to college towns for the fall semester amid a surge fueled by the highly-contagious delta coronavirus variant. Meanwhile, vaccination rates remain relatively low.

More:Kansas reports 3 active school COVID clusters as students and teachers return to class

While about 59% of the eligible population and about 50% of the entire state population have gotten at least one dose, the one-dose vaccination rate drops to about 43% of the 18-24 age group.

The Pitt State plan provides a $500 scholarship to every student with regular on-campus classes who provides proof of vaccination by Sept. 17. The students will also be entered to win one of two $8,500 grand prizes, which equate to a semester's worth of tuition, fees, meals and housing.

The K-State plan involves weekly prize drawings every Friday, starting this week and continuing through Oct. 8. There will be six winners each week from the pool of students who have been vaccinated.

Prizes include gift cards, video game systems, iPads, a Garmin watch, a Keurig coffee maker and other options from which students may choose. A grand prize drawing on Oct. 15 will award one vaccinated student with their choice of a Sony PlayStation 5, a Macbook Air or $1,000 in cash.

"We are strongly committed to in-person learning and ask everyone to do what’s necessary to support this effort," K-State President Richard Myers said in a Monday newsletter before the incentive program was announced. "The best personal defense we have is to get vaccinated. The vaccines are free, safe and widely available.

"Last spring, we made tremendous progress in our vaccination rates but we know there is more to do."

More:COVID pandemic reveals rural Kansas health care challenges like advanced care, broadband

The University of Kansas vaccine webpage states that "students can expect to hear additional information about incentives to complete vaccinations as we approach the fall semester."

A concept floated at a state SPARK committee meeting proposed using federal COVID-19 aid on a vaccine incentive targeting college-aged people. The plan was to use $1 million on college scholarships for people 24 and younger to in-state schools.

The state report noted a "lottery program mobilizes a large volume of individuals and increases the urgency for the high-risk population." The state-level incentive plan never moved forward.

A study published last month by Boston University School of Medicine researchers found that Ohio's lottery-based incentive did not increase vaccination rates.

"Our results suggest that state-based lotteries are of limited value in increasing vaccine uptake. 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," said Allan Walkey, a medical professor and physician at Boston Medical Center, in a statement.

Since last fall, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment has recorded 63 clusters at colleges or universities