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How Does Penn State’s Coronavirus Testing Stack Up Against The Big Ten?

As students return to college campuses across the country this fall, coronavirus testing will be key in keeping communities safe and healthy.

Earlier this summer, Penn State rolled out its plans for testing students, faculty, and staff this semester, including at-home coronavirus testing before the classes and random surveillance testing during the semester.

Although the university’s approximately 30,000 pre-arrival coronavirus tests went over rather smoothly over the past few weeks, some students and faculty members have criticized the university for its less-than-ideal plans and procedures.

Now that classes are set to begin in just a few days, let’s take a look at how Penn State’s coronavirus testing plans stack up against other Big Ten universities.

Testing Frequency

Once Penn State’s 30,000 pre-arrival coronavirus tests are administered, the university will begin conducting random surveillance testing at designated locations around campus. Back in July, Penn State said it planned to test approximately 1% of the university’s population (~700 people) each day.

In a statistician’s ideal world, this would mean each student would undergo asymptomatic coronavirus testing once every 100 days — a mark that seems both inefficient and irresponsible. Of course, students who are experiencing coronavirus symptoms are able to request tests of their own at any time.

Elsewhere in the Big Ten, universities have taken a more proactive approach to test frequency. Standing at the top of the pack is Illinois, which previously announced it would test every student at least twice per week, or at least every four days, upon their return to campus. Students would opt into weekly testing schedules, such as Monday and Thursday, Tuesday and Friday, and so on.

Like Penn State, Illinois’ tests are offered at no charge at nearly 20 locations across its campus. Students who fail to comply with testing procedures could also be met with disciplinary punishment, including suspension or expulsion.

Northwestern, on the other hand, is following Penn State’s lead with random surveillance testing of the university’s population. However, the Wildcats are employing a much more thorough frequency.

According to the university’s initial coronavirus testing protocols, Northwestern plans to test at least 15% of its on-campus population, including students, faculty, and staff, each day. Off-campus students would be rolled into random surveillance testing at a lower frequency.

Ohio State will employ a unique strategy to test its students. Using “batch” tests, the university will test large numbers of individuals at once, evaluate for positive results, and then re-test identified individuals to confirm the results. In doing so, it’ll implement far fewer tests than the average university. Coupled with surveillance testing, Ohio State plans to test at least 300 students each day.

Michigan will also randomly test large batches of students each week. According to its website, the university plans to screen at least 3,000 individuals, most of whom are at a high-risk or living in on-campus housing, each week. Students arriving on campus must receive negative test results before moving in.

The rest of the Big Ten didn’t exactly leave a glowing impression regarding their coronavirus testing frequencies. Some, such as Indiana and Iowa, will roll similarly to Penn State and gradually sample a small portion of their populations every day. Others, including Michigan State and Wisconsin, haven’t made specific testing plans public or responded to comment on their procedures.

On-Campus Testing Facilities

Back when Penn State made its fall semester testing plans public, administrators said students would undergo surveillance testing at designated locations across campus. However, those details haven’t been announced just yet.

University Health Services already announced it will provide on-site symptomatic testing as well as same-day testing at Eisenhower Parking Deck. Details remain sparse surrounding Penn State’s other planned testing sites, though.

Elsewhere, things are a bit different. As mentioned earlier, Illinois will set up nearly 20 testing sites across campus and town. Its testing page features specific addresses and hours for each site. Northwestern, meanwhile, is establishing on-campus sites for different scenarios, including specific locations for asymptomatic student testing, symptomatic faculty testing, and everything in between. It’s also setting up sites for off-campus students.

Other Big Ten schools, such as Nebraska, plan to establish one-stop shops for coronavirus testing on campus rather than several smaller locations scattered around.

Testing Availability

There truly isn’t much differentiation between Big Ten schools when it comes to available coronavirus tests for students. Each university has waived test costs for students and reiterated that individuals who need tests will get one.

Penn State mailed free coronavirus tests to students living in “hot spots” for the virus ahead of the semester. It’s reiterated both asymptomatic surveillance testing and symptomatic testing won’t cost students.

Result Turnarounds

When Penn State first announced its plans to conduct pre-arrival coronavirus tests, College of Medicine interim Dean Kevin Black said results would be returned to students about 48 hours after received by Vault, the independent lab partnered with the university.

Black didn’t provide specifics on Penn State’s turnaround time for surveillance testing. However, he said the university is finalizing plans with a “well-known, high-quality” laboratory committed to returning “excellent” times for results. He didn’t specify exactly what “excellent” entailed.

All across the board, result turnarounds are varied among Big Ten universities. Illinois, for example, said students can expect “typical results” as soon as five hours after undergoing a coronavirus test but warned turnaround could still take up to 48 hours. Few other universities have made their expected turnaround times public so far.


Although some universities are a few steps ahead of Penn State, the university’s current coronavirus testing policies seem promising. A combination of increased transparency from administrators and students’ willingness to cooperate with plans will go a long way to help keep campus safe this fall.

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About the Author

Matt DiSanto

Matt proudly served as Onward State’s managing editor for two years until graduating from Penn State with distinction in May 2022. Now, he’s off in the real world doing real things. Send him an email ([email protected]) or follow him on Twitter (@mattdisanto_) to stay in touch.

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