Colleges Are Selling Branded PPE Because of Course They Are

They may not have a safe back-to-school plan, but darned if they’ll miss this branding opportunity

Photo: Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images

Student safety has become increasingly available for purchase in recent years. From pepper sprays to bulletproof backpacks popping up in Crayola-colored back-to-school store displays, it’s easier to sell a product that feigns safety than to enact policies that might actually provide it. And with the Covid-19 pandemic, some colleges and universities are marketing a branding gimmick in the face of a major problem.

Only months after colleges across the country asked their students to move out of dorms and onto Zoom, this fall, schools like the University of Arizona, Princeton, Georgia Tech, and countless others are selling branded personal protective equipment (PPE) as part of the fall return to half-open campuses — because nothing says “back-to-school in a deadly pandemic” quite like school-spirit hand sanitizer.

To be clear, masks work, and everyone should be wearing them (collegiate colors and logos optional). If themed PPE is what convinces some people to mask up, that’s objectively a good thing. But it’s worth noting that Covid-19 cases are spiking in young adults, and not every student has a “traditional” collegiate experience anyway — many are parents or caretakers, fall outside the expected age range of 18–23, work jobs off campus, or are otherwise in positions where they could experience increased exposure. The opportunism of selling branded PPE in the midst of a pandemic in which so many young people have been affected by job loss and, in a lot of cases, no tuition refund is disappointing.

On June 22, Samantha, a 21-year-old senior at Temple University, received an email from her campus bookstore promoting a $25 PPE kit featuring generic cloth masks, disposable gloves, and hand sanitizers. At the time Samantha received the promotional email, her school still hadn’t made definitive plans about students returning to campus. A few weeks later, another email expanded the selections on offer with university-branded cloth masks.

School spirit PPE from the University of Arizona (left) and Princeton (right)

“Adding school spirit to a public health necessity is weird at best, disgraceful at worst,” Samantha said. To her, it felt like the school was not only asking its students for more money but using them as walking product-placement vehicles in the process. “If the university wants us to come back and are requiring face coverings, like they should, then masks should be available for free or at production cost for students who cannot supply their own,” she added.

In a collegiate culture that still routinely charges hundreds of dollars for textbooks, it shouldn’t be entirely surprising that institutions are seizing the opportunity to turn a buck from a global pandemic. (Many university bookstores are independent commercial enterprises that operate within the university community, and with its blessing.) But it’s grating to see schools seize such a merchandising opportunity before working out the logistics of reopening — many schools are still figuring out how to ensure proper social distancing, prepare for a second wave of Covid-19, and protect students, faculty, and staff. While some have laid out specific plans, others appear to have taken a shoulder-shrug, we’ll-see-what-happens approach.

In some cases, schools will require masks for entry into lecture halls, classrooms, and labs, which could add an additional expense for students—especially for those who are low-income, reliant on loans or financial aid, or working to support themselves—if the schools aren’t providing PPE materials. It’s an audacious flex: We believe you should be safe during a public health crisis, but we also believe you should pay for it.

“If the university wants us to come back and are requiring face coverings, like they should, then masks should be available for free.”

Classrooms aren’t the only venue for branded safety: Game day is a moneymaking opportunity too. Barnes and Noble College, which operates campus bookstores at over 700 schools, including the University of North Carolina, Indiana University, the University of Kentucky, and Yale, is selling a “stadium essentials” bag that comes with a face mask, hand sanitizer, and a “no touch key chain with door opening hook.” Yale also advertises an “everyday neck gaiter,” branded with the school’s signature Y, with a description that includes “protect yourself in style.” A Covid-19 preparedness fundraiser at Purdue University features a $62.50 donation that buys five “wellness kits” that include Purdue-branded face masks, hand sanitizer, and a digital thermometer. The University of Missouri, Kansas City installed a vending machine where students can purchase PPE.

Olivia, a 20-year-old student at the University of Pittsburgh who asked to be identified by her first name only, will receive only one branded mask for her return to campus as will all her fellow students and faculty members. And that one mask won’t be nearly enough given that masks need to be washed. She said she believes schools are using PPE-for-purchase as “a marketing scheme” by giving students “a false sense of security for returning to campuses this fall amidst a pandemic that has more cases right now than when we were all forced to go home.” Her university announced it would provide students with one mask upon arrival but hasn’t said whether hand sanitizer, wipes, or cleaning supplies will be provided.

At its darkest, collegiate PPE feels like a grim manifestation of late capitalism, in which gaping holes in a social safety net get patched with individual Band-Aids branded with a school logo. At the least, it’s an eyebrow-raiser — last semester, students were tasked with moving out with a week’s notice; this semester, it’s picking up PPE at the campus bookstore alongside pens and a late-night ice cream sandwich.

While it seems like an unlikely comparison, research shows 85% of U.S. colleges distribute free condoms on campus. If schools aren’t profiting off that version of personal protection, it makes little sense they’d sell masks and sanitizers for profit either. After all, what happens if you forget your mask and show up to class without it? What if you can’t afford the extra $25 to buy your own PPE kit because you’re paying tuition and rent to live on campus? What if it’s out of stock at the school store?

Some Gen Zers are turning the tables by creating their own PPE stores and marketing them on social media, selling themed masks to offset their expenses. To some members of older generations, this is proof of that Gen Z entrepreneurial spirit — as if creating your own PPE is an example of youthful ingenuity and not a signal that the systems we pay for are failing us all. “Party safely, study safely! We can’t include safety in your tuition, though!” seems to be the going collegiate mantra — and it can all be yours for $29.99.

Author of An Ordinary Age, out 5/4/2021. Freelance writer. Kentuckian.

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