In 2014, the University System of Georgia became the laboratory for what one Savannah newspaper called “one of the nation’s largest experiments in privatized college dorms.” The “experiment” in question is what is known as a public-private partnership, or P3, between the University System of Georgia and a company called Corvias Property Management. Under this $517 million agreement, Corvias became responsible for the maintenance of 6,195 beds and the development of 3,683 beds of on-campus housing for, as well as over $300 million of the Board of Regent’s debt for these properties., In return, Corvias receives profits from student rent.
However, student housing upkeep and property debt were not the only things USG gave over to Corvias—they also gave up a significant amount of control over housing policies. This trade became exceedingly apparent when a Freedom of Information Act request uncovered a letter Corvias executives sent to the USG Board of Regents (BOR) on May 29 about universities’ reopening.
In the letter, executives expressed concern over the effect that the multiple potential reopening plans for Fall 2020 may have on student occupancy and housing fee revenue and reminded the BOR of the $548 million of debt they took on for the project. They claimed that under the terms of their agreement, the BOR does not have the “unilateral right” to take actions that would prevent or discourage students from living on campus or to reduce housing fees for the semester. They also stated that, while they intend to follow CDC guidance as closely as reasonably possible, their reading of those guidelines does not deem it necessary to reduce the number of roommates in a unit or the student occupancy of the building. What does this mean for students?
A June 10 agenda from the University Systems Office shows system staff considering the implications of this letter and discussing the financial and legal impacts of several potential pandemic-induced changes to student housing policy. The legal discussion of the agenda highlights several key areas where USG gave up control over housing decisions under the terms of their agreement with Corvias: dorm capacity and room occupancy, student housing rates and housing contract cancellation.
The BOR does not have the unilateral right to reduce capacity in the dorms—their contract states that student demand dictates occupancy, and the agenda stated that “any BOR unilateral decision to reduce room capacity or rate will be at BOR’s legal and financial risk, and likely invite a Corvias dispute and legal challenge.” The BOR also does not have the unilateral right to lower housing rates or offer windows where students may cancel their housing contract without penalty.
Additionally, the memo states that the agreement does not require Corvias to provide refunds in the event of housing closures for public safety measures. When the BOR unilaterally closed on-campus housing in March of 2020, the University Systems Office covered 77%, or $10.3 million, of the total cost of the housing refunds for the nine institutions that had a partnership with Corvias. Corvias did not share the responsibility for this refund.
USG has since released several statements denying that Corvias’ letter had any impact on reopening plans and emphasizing that each individual institution submitted their own reopening plan in accordance with CDC and DPH guidelines. Regardless of the role Corvias’ letter played in reopening decisions, its existence speaks to some of the deeper problems within public higher education. As public universities privatize more aspects of their operations, private companies like Corvias are being given a seat at the table and their interest in profit is being considered along with, and oftentimes above, the interests of students. When the health and safety of students, faculty and staff is on the line, these conflicting interests become even more apparent. Public universities have a responsibility to their students, and over the remaining 60 or so years of this partnership between USG and Corvias, transparency in the decision-making process and a commitment to prioritizing students above profit will be vital.
 These universities were: University of North Georgia, Georgia State University, Columbus State University, Augusta University, College of Coastal Georgia, Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, East Georgia State College, Georgia Southern University – Armstrong Campus