Students wait in line to enter the Peter T. Flawn Academic Center at the University of Texas at Austin last year. Credit: Allie Goulding for The Texas Tribune

Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

The prizes range from a year of free tuition and paid days off to $100 gift cards for the campus cafeteria.

But the goal is the same: Convince as many Texas college students, faculty and staff to get vaccinated against COVID-19 as the fall semester begins amid a continuing surge of the virus that could be worse than anything the state has seen yet.

While more than 740 universities across the country have issued a vaccine mandate, many Texas colleges and universities are stopping short of such a requirement, pointing to Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on vaccine mandates within stage agencies. Instead, they are turning to financial incentives to try and increase vaccine rates in their school communities as they prepare to fully reopen over the next few weeks.

Texas A&M University in College Station and Texas A&M International University in Laredo have dangled the possibility of winning free tuition and fees in front of students if they get the jab. In Lubbock, Texas Tech University is offering prizes such as scholarships and free parking, while faculty and staff could win Tech football tickets and concert tickets to see singer Amy Grant and Alton Brown Live.

Other schools, from the University of North Texas to San Jacinto College in Houston, are also trying to entice students and employees to get vaccinated with prizes like scholarships, gift cards and campus health center memberships. The University of Texas at San Antonio is automatically giving everyone a $10 gift card if they get vaccinated through their clinics, in addition to other sweepstakes.

The University of Texas at Austin announced Thursday it also would provide prizes to students and faculty who showed proof of vaccination, with details forthcoming.

The move to incentivize the vaccine among college-age students also comes as more young people 18 to 29 years old in Texas are being hospitalized with the virus, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. Between July 17 and August 17, the hospitalization rate among that group has increased by 279% in the state.

“We’re hearing anecdotally from our health department that it is our age group or our student demographic that seems to be lagging in the vaccination in getting their vaccine,” said Juan Castillo, vice president for finance and administration at Texas A&M International. “College students think they’re invincible and ‘oh that won’t happen to me.’”

Young adults are also less likely to get the flu vaccine, according to the CDC.

try{newswireFrames.autoInitFrames();}catch(err){}

Meanwhile, one university system in the state is taking a hard line against vaccine incentives. In a Zoom press conference Thursday, Texas State University leaders said they would not provide vaccine incentives because university system lawyers believe the governor’s executive orders bans them. A spokesperson for the university system declined to answer questions, citing attorney-client privilege. Abbott’s office did not respond to a request for clarification.

Mandates not an option

Some universities have shifted classes online temporarily or have allowed professors to switch to hybrid classes that reduce the number of students in a classroom at one time. But many schools are moving ahead with plans for in-person classes — and 100% capacity at football games, campus gymnasiums, dorm rooms and dining halls, even though they cannot require vaccines or masks.

While some counties and K-12 school districts have challenged the governor’s ban on mask orders, institutions of higher education have remained quiet, instead relying on encouragement in social media campaigns, letters to the campus community and incentive programs.

Leaders at UT-San Antonio and the University of Texas at Dallas, both in counties where a judge has granted a temporary restraining order allowing leadership to reinstate a mask mandate, said those changes do not apply to their campuses because they’re on state property.

In Texas, just a few small, private universities have implemented stricter policies than encouragement to get vaccinated. At Southwestern University and St. Edward’s University in Central Texas, students must get vaccinated or submit an exemption form. Paul Quinn College, a historically Black college in Dallas, is requiring vaccines for students who want to take in-person classes.

“We are requiring students to have vaccines. We’re requiring them to wear masks. We didn’t think it was anything particularly controversial because the science is very clear on this,” Paul Quinn president Michael Sorrell told NBC 5 earlier this week. Sorrell denied a request for an interview with The Texas Tribune through a university spokesperson.

Many university administrators are hesitant to even comment on whether they think it is safe to reopen college campuses without the ability to require a mask or vaccine.

“I’m not gonna give my opinion on that. We’re just following what the state orders are and what our leaders are recommending here on campus,” said Chris Miles, emergency management director for Texas Tech University.

“We’re looking for touchdowns right now”

Faculty and students across the state have increasingly vocalized their concerns with reopening colleges and universities as planned given the surge in cases and the lack of protective measures allowed, urging university leaders to reverse course.

try{newswireFrames.autoInitFrames();}catch(err){}

The Texas chapter of the American Association of University Professors this week called on Abbott to allow university communities to make their own decisions regarding COVID-19 safety protocols on campus. The group pointed to the large number of vaccine mandates at colleges and universities across the country, one of which was held up in federal court at Indiana University.

A student government group at UT-Austin, the Senate of College Councils, conducted a survey and found 87% of 1,112 respondents want a vaccine mandate for the fall semester.

And some behavioral economists who study incentives are skeptical that free meals and parking will convince enough students and employees to get the shot as the vaccine remains politicized.

“Each of these things might put a yard on the field, but we’re looking for touchdowns right now because we’re in a crisis,” said David Asch, University of Pennsylvania professor and executive director of the Penn Medicine Center for Health Care Innovation.

Asch pointed to a study of college students that shows they are more likely to be persuaded to get a vaccine if others around them are also getting the shot, something known as “bandwagoning.”

He suggested that universities also focus on messaging campaigns that specifically share stories of fellow colleagues and students who are getting the vaccine.

Castillo at TAMIU said the school is giving out shirts to vaccinated students to create a bit of peer pressure on campus. Baylor University also started a campaign of sharing personal stories of students who got vaccinated and why. A Baylor spokesperson said they estimate nearly 60% of students have received the vaccine.

Asch said his concern is that while some of those methods are effective, they may not get enough people vaccinated to stem the spread of infections.

“And they risk being decoys or diversions from the kinds of things that actually might make a difference,” he said. “And that, at this point, I believe are mandates.”

Liz Hamel, director of public opinion and survey research at the Kaiser Family Foundation, said it has found in its research that young people are more likely to be driven by incentives than other age groups.

“We talked about pulling every tool out of the toolbox to try and move smaller groups of the population at a time,” Hamel said. “That’s how you’re going to just inch closer to a larger vaccine uptake.”

She has conducted surveys about the perception of the COVID-19 vaccine throughout the pandemic. While the percentage of respondents who say they want to wait and see before getting the vaccine has shrunk, the percentage of respondents who said they would “definitely not” get the shot has remained steady since December.

Disclosure: Baylor University, San Jacinto College, Texas Tech University, University of Texas – Dallas, University of Texas at Austin, University of Texas at San Antonio and University of North Texas have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Join us Sept. 20-25 at the 2021 Texas Tribune Festival. Tickets are on sale now for this multi-day celebration of big, bold ideas about politics, public policy and the day’s news, curated by The Texas Tribune’s award-winning journalists. Learn more.

The Texas Tribune

The Texas Tribune is the only member-supported, digital-first, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Leave a comment

Welcome to the discussion.

• Transparency. Your full name is required.

• Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.

• PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.

• Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.

• Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.

• Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.

• Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article -- and receive photos, videos of what you see.

• Don’t be a troll. Don’t be a troll.

• Don’t post inflammatory or off-topic messages, or personal attacks.