Colleges in Southeast Minnesota received tens of millions in COVID-relief: Here's how it was spent

The flow of federal dollars will end in 2022. Schools will have to cope without a safety net.

Rochester Community and Technical College
Rochester Community and Technical College. Post Bulletin file photo

Since COVID-19 struck early last year, colleges and universities across Southeast Minnesota have been showered with tens of millions of dollars to help them weather the disruptions caused by the pandemic.

Rochester Community and Technical College, for example, has received a combined $18 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Act (CARES) Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSAA), and the American Rescue Plan (ARP). Winona State University has received $30 million and Riverland Community College, $9.3 million.

They are large sums: The $18 million made available to RCTC represents nearly half of RCTC's $40 million annual budget, although the dollars are being spread out over three years.

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Of the $18 million available to RCTC, a large share of it -- $.7.7 million -- has been earmarked for students, in the form of the direct-to-student grants. About $2.9 million of the $7.7 million has been spent. The college is poised to spend another $2.8 million in student payments that will benefit 2,200 students, an RCTC official said.

Officials say that schools are able to tap into these funds until June 30, 2022. If it's not spent by then, the money is gone.


Millions have also been spent, officials say, to purchase laptop computers for students to check out as online learning has expanded; to train faculty to adapt to online learning environments; to purchase personal protective equipment and upgrade HVAC systems; to replace lost revenue due to enrollment declines caused by COVID; and to pay for extra safety personnel at campus entrances to screen visitors, faculty and students.

Brad Doss, Riverland's vice president of finance and operations, said the federal assistance proved especially helpful in dealing with enrollment declines attributable to the pandemic. Riverland didn't layoff any faculty or staff, which would not have been the case without the financial help.

The college updated half of its classrooms so faculty can teach both face-to-face and via Zoom technology, at a cost of $500,000.

Nate Stoltman, RCTC spokesperson, said the the dollars have been meaningful to students. Debt relief worth thousands of dollars was provided to hundreds of students. Emergency grants valued at $300 to $500 have also allowed students to pay for car repairs and child care.

"It really is life-changing," Stoltman said. "Some people may not think that $300 or $500 may be a lot of money. But for someone who doesn't have many resources, that can mean the difference between dropping out and continuing on."

WSU officials say the pandemic has cost its budget $17.7 million in terms of lost revenue, COVID-19 expenses and room and board refunds issued to students. WSU received $16.6 million in federal institutional funding, recouping most of the loss. And $13.5 million went directly to students.

The college also spent $1 million to set up a testing program for faculty who opted not to get vaccinated. So far, only nine faculty members have tested positive since August, WSU President Scott Olson said.

"Is it inefficient? Nine cases and all that money. Probably," Olson said. "The vaccines are free. I think we're hoping that after a few weeks or months of this, logging and talking to the nurse and spitting in a test tube, somebody will just say, 'To heck with this. I'm just getting a shot in the arm.'"


Just like retail and restaurant business and hospitals and clinics, the pandemic has reshaped higher education. Distance learning became more entrenched. Before the pandemic, one-third of RCTC's students took at least one online course. That jumped to nearly 53 percent last year and 49 percent this year.

The universities and college also face a difficult transition when the flow of federal assistance stops in 2022.

"Definitely," Doss said, "because that's going to have a definite budget impact."

With the safety net withdrawn, schools will no longer be protected from revenue lost to declining enrollment.

"We have to be realistic about fact that we aren't going to have at some point these (federal dollars)," Stoltman said. "You have seen how there are a lot of schools that have had trend lines pointing in the wrong direction in terms of enrollment. And should those trend lines continue, there's going to be lot of schools having potentially difficult conversations."

Matthew Stolle has been a Post Bulletin reporter since 2000 and covered many of the beats that make up a newsroom. In his first several years, he covered K-12 education and higher education in Rochester before shifting to politics. He has also been a features writer. Today, Matt jumps from beat to beat, depending on what his editor and the Rochester area are producing in terms of news. Readers can reach Matthew at 507-281-7415 or
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