MN colleges dole out COVID funds for student car repairs and day care, $1 million site to test faculty

Minnesota colleges and universities hit the jackpot with millions of dollars in federal COVID-19 funding flowing into their coffers to offset the financial impact of the pandemic — and then some. The extravagant federal giveaway to three higher education institutions in southeastern Minnesota caught the attention of the Post Bulletin.

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.

The windfall more than covered the schools’ shortfall due to declining enrollment and other disruptions caused by COVID. So what to do with the millions left over before the July 1, 2022 deadline for spending the taxpayer funding?

A case in point at Winona State University illustrates the extremes administrators had to go to find ways to justify their spending.

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.'”

Inefficient? That works out to more than $100,000 per positive COVID test to date. But there’s more where that comes from at nearby Rochester Community and Technical College.

Nate Stoltman, RCTC spokesperson, said 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.”

Winona State allocated more than $13 million to students. Of course, millions also went to install the latest technology in classrooms, laptops, COVID screening stations, air exchange systems, you name it.

But what happens after the federal freebies go away?

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.”

There’s no indication the massive amount of federal aid handed out on campus has done anything to stem the continuing decline in student enrollment and revenue. Instead of using the pandemic as a springboard to adapt to new realities in higher education, colleges have instead postponed an inevitable reckoning that will likely include more cutbacks and campus consolidations.