In March 2021, the U.S. Congress approved $39.6 billion in support to institutions of higher education to serve students and ensure learning continues during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Almost a year later, College of the Desert plans to spend $1 million of federal relief aid to purchase Amazon gift cards for students to incentivize them to get COVID-19 vaccines.
The college had announced in January that COD students would receive $100 Amazon gift cards if they provide certification to the college that they have received two shots of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Boosters are not required.
But the college had not said how much it intended to spend on the program. Buying $1 million in gift cards would cover 10,000 students.
Superintendent/President Martha Garcia announced Thursday that COD’s current enrollment is 10,097. Fall 2021 enrollment was down about 16% compared to fall 2019.
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“It’s an incentive for students,” Garcia said. “The more students (that) are vaccinated, frankly, the safer we are.”
Previously, the college had announced that students must provide proof of vaccination by the end of January to qualify for the incentive, but a college spokesperson could not confirm this week how many awards the school has distributed thus far and if it plans to continue the incentive program until it spends $1 million.
Federal guidance states that vaccine incentives are legal uses of relief aid “as a risk mitigation strategy to prevent the greater institutional expenses that would occur because of a COVID-19 outbreak on campus.”
COD is not alone among community colleges in Southern California that are spending federal relief aid on vaccine incentives. Long Beach City College authorized $1 million last fall to give $300 bookstore vouchers to vaccinated students.
And, the Los Angeles Community College District offered $75 to each student who got vaccinated at campus events last summer — plus a free pass to Six Flags Magic Mountain provided by a grant from Kaiser Permanente.
COD received nearly $13 million of COVID-19 relief aid in last year’s round of federal funding, and it received several million more in previous aid packages since 2020, according to the college’s website.
Unrelated to the gift card incentive program, COD also received an $18 million donation last year from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, the ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
In a board report Thursday, Garcia said slightly less than half of 10,097 enrolled students are taking at least one in-person class this semester.
“About 50% of our students are engaging with us in-person,” Garcia said. “There’s definitely interest, and it is important that we continue to modify our scheduling as we move forward… and try to ensure that the courses that are being offered are meeting students needs while ensuring that our team is safe and the students and the community that comes to campus are safe.”
Last fall, Garcia said she would like to see a 10% increase in enrollment by fall 2022.
The college has several incentives in place to encourage students to enroll.
A federal grant will provide spring 2022 enrollees with up to $100 per unit.
Starting next fall, 50 COD students will participate in a statewide college service program that will provide a $10,000 stipend for educational expenses.
The full annual cost of attendance for a local student living at home equates to approximately $15,807, according to the college’s website. That figure includes approximately $1,300 for tuition, $1,100 for books, $3,200 for miscellaneous costs and $9,000 for food and housing. The college estimates that students living away from home should budget about $17,000 for food and housing.
Jonathan Horwitz covers education for The Desert Sun. Reach him at email@example.com or @Writes_Jonathan.