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Free tuition, anyone? What local universities are doing to entice or punish students around COVID-19 protocols.

Rider University student Jordyn Locks got free tuition under a vaccination-incentive program. Universities also are punishing unvaccinated students who fail to submit to required COVID-19 testing.

Sophomore Jordyn Locks at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J. Locks was one of three Rider students who won a year of free tuition after showing proof of COVID-19 vaccination.
Sophomore Jordyn Locks at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J. Locks was one of three Rider students who won a year of free tuition after showing proof of COVID-19 vaccination.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Jordyn Locks couldn’t believe the call she got from a Rider University administrator: The sophomore won a full year of free tuition, valued at more than $46,000, just for being vaccinated against COVID-19.

“I was like, ‘What? This has to be a joke,’ ” said the exercise science major from Bear, Del. “When I submitted my vaccination card, I didn’t even know that was a thing.”

Locks was one of three students out of a potential pool of about 2,700 to win that honor under an incentive program by the New Jersey university to encourage students to get vaccinated before the school year started.

As universities grapple with how to keep a typically invincible-feeling population safe and in-person, other area schools have dangled carrots, too — albeit less exciting. Pennsylvania State University offered drawings with cash prizes, gift cards, and footballs autographed by coach James Franklin. West Chester University offered a chance at scholarships. Nationwide, motivation has included everything from laptops, photo shoots, concert tickets, and free parking to pizza parties and therapy dogs.

» READ MORE: A professor got a heart transplant so he wanted to teach online. His university said no.

As the school year continues, universities also are applying the stick: Penn State recently placed more than 100 students at its University Park campus on interim suspension for failing to report for required COVID-19 testing after they had not submitted proof of vaccination.

West Chester on an interim basis suspended housing for 39 students who failed to report for testing. West Chester is one of 14 state universities not requiring the vaccine, but West Chester mandates that unvaccinated students living in residence halls submit to random testing.

“They are no longer permitted to reside on campus until they test and submit their results,” said Nancy Santos Gainer, a West Chester spokesperson.

Other colleges are threatening similar measures, including preventing students from registering for spring classes and having access to campus buildings. Drexel University has said students who are not exempt and fail to get the vaccine — which the university has required and which Philadelphia has mandated for college students and staff by Oct. 15 — could face other disciplinary action too, including dismissal, said spokesperson Niki Gianakaris.

Vaccination rates are already very high at Drexel, with about 96% of students and staff vaccinated, and others in process as the school completes its second week of classes. Less than 2% of students and 1% of employees have received exemptions, Gianakaris said.

Across the region, vaccination rates vary, with many schools that required the vaccine having more than 90% of students and staff vaccinated, and those that did not somewhat less. At West Chester, 66% of students taking classes in-person and 62% of employees have provided proof of vaccination, Gainer said. At Penn State, which does not require it, 81% of staff and 87% of students are vaccinated, but in the residence halls, it is more than 90%.

“I think we’re getting to the same place without using the word mandate,” said Damon Sims, Penn State’s vice president of student affairs.

So far, none of the local campuses have had to revert to remote instruction for the semester, and some campuses where there were worrisome case spurts earlier in September, including Villanova and La Salle, seem to have stabilized.

» READ MORE: This time last year, Temple went virtual because of case counts. How do schools compare now?

At Villanova, where 95% of students are vaccinated, active cases had dropped to 13 by Friday after an uptick last month, which caused the university to tighten some measures. Villanova, which requires the vaccine and also mandates twice-weekly surveillance testing for unvaccinated students and employees, and random testing for the vaccinated, has not had to resort to disciplinary measures, said spokesperson Jonathan Gust. If a student or employee misses testing, they receive a reminder and then a warning email, he said.

Temple University sends noncompliant students multiple emails and then takes away their access to campus buildings, said spokesperson Steve Orbanek. If they still fail to get tested, they are referred to the student conduct office, he said.

At Temple, 96% of the 2,584 students who are required to submit to testing have complied, he said. About 86% of students and staff are fully vaccinated.

Penn State announced the interim suspensions of noncompliant students on Sept. 21. By early last week, about half the students had reported for testing or got vaccinated or had already been vaccinated and just needed to upload their information, Sims said. They were removed from suspension.

None of the students lived in the residence halls, but they were excluded from classes, university activities including football games, and campus facilities, he said.

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The suspensions occurred only after students had missed three weeks of testing and the university called, emailed, and, in residence halls, even knocked on students’ doors, he said. Ten staff members from student affairs ran a phone bank, Sims said. Those efforts averted suspensions for several hundred students.

“We want as many people as possible to be vaccinated,” he said. “We hope that most are willing to do that. We also want them to upload the data proving that they are vaccinated so we know that.”

About 55 students remained on interim suspension as of Wednesday, Sims said. More students, though, could be added each week if they don’t comply, he said. While all the suspensions occurred at the 48,000-student University Park campus, Sims said other Penn State campuses are preparing to take similar action if necessary.

The Coalition for a Just University, a group of largely university professors who have been critical of Penn State’s response to COVID-19, would have rather seen the university mandate the vaccine, said Gary King, a professor of biobehavioral health at University Park and a coalition spokesperson.

“Part of the measures they are taking are the result of the measures they didn’t take,” he said.

At Rider, administrators announced the free tuition incentive July 29. The university had previously said all students without medical or religious exemptions would need to be vaccinated by the fall semester, but only 65% had uploaded their vaccine cards.

By Aug. 5, the percentage jumped to 85, said Drew Aromando, vice president for enrollment management.

“It’s difficult to gauge whether [the tuition incentive] was exclusively the reason,” he said. “There were a number of things we were doing to try to move the needle.”

But it definitely helped, he said.

All students were eligible except those already receiving full free tuition and those taking all classes online. A winner was randomly chosen from each enrollment category: traditional undergraduate, graduate, and continuing education for non-traditional-age students. Winners received the tuition, less other institutional aid or scholarships they already had, Aromando said.

Locks said for her, the win amounted to about $19,000. Between her campus job as a resident adviser and free tuition, she said college isn’t costing her anything this year. Last fall, her first at Rider, vaccines were not yet available and all her classes were on Zoom.

“It’s so much better this year,” she said. “I get to finally wake up and walk to class and see other students.”

Aromando said 96% of students are fully vaccinated and the remaining 4% have approved exemptions and must submit to weekly testing. Since the semester began, Rider has had 17 COVID-19 cases among students and staff as of Sept. 24, according to its dashboard.

Locks said she was vaccinated before Rider announced the incentive. Even if the vaccine wasn’t required, she said she would have gotten it.

“If I can do my part and slightly change the world with my little impact,” she said, “it will make me feel better.”