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Footing the bill for UGA Study Abroad Buildings

Maintaining buildings in other countries isn't cheap, but UGA officials say it's worthwhile.

Short on vacation funds this year?

Why not stop by one of the foreign properties being paid for by Georgia taxpayers?

There’s the stately Victorian manor in Oxford, England, or the ecolodge San Luis in the tropical rain forests of Costa Rica. If it’s the riches of Italy you crave, try the medieval convent in sunny Tuscany, complete with its own bocce court and maid service.

It’s a little known fact: Taxpayers are spending nearly $1 million a year to support three international properties owned by University of Georgia foundations, though they are being used by only a tiny fraction of the student population.

The public money to “lease” the sites from the UGA Foundation and the UGA Real Estate Foundation comes from UGA’s resident instruction budget and goes toward debt payment, along with some insurance and upkeep.

The Costa Rica program also gets a $75,000-a-year subsidy from the state for maintenance of the sprawling for-profit jungle complex.

“You’re in a cloud forest,” said Cindy Coyle, chief financial officer of the UGA Foundation.  “You’d better have upkeep.”

About 700 to 800 students use the sites for travel studies throughout the year, about 2 percent of UGA’s student body. It’s part of a major effort by the administration to get more Georgia students involved in study abroad.

Against a bleak budgetary backdrop, university officials defend the public funding as an important legacy builder.

“These properties will last way beyond me, way beyond you,” Coyle said.

“By owning the property, UGA provides permanent sites which we control for our students, rather than being under obligation to other institutions,” UGA Provost Jere Morehead said in a statement. “We consider our study abroad programs to be a tremendous investment in our students and Georgia’s future.”

Occasional visits to the sites are made by alumni, prospective donors, faculty and students from other universities. UGA President Michael Adams, who made it a goal to boost study abroad, has visited the sites, along with other members of his executive team.

Seeing the world is a major focus at Centre College, the private $40,000-a-year liberal arts college that Adams led before coming to UGA. On websites, it advertises ownership of residential sites in London, Strasbourg and Merida, Mexico.

Other private schools, including Harvard and Cornell universities, promote study abroad but have not made direct investments in foreign properties.

More than $8 million is still owed on UGA’s three properties, according to documents released by .

The state of Georgia also pays the salaries of the three program directors, which range from $64,000 to about $80,000. They divide their duties between Athens and the international sites.

Their staff members are not paid by the state, but instead are paid with tuition money and/or private funds such as program fees paid by the student travelers.

The public costs to finance and maintain the properties are not mentioned on university study abroad websites, which instead tout escalating numbers of study abroad students and the academic benefits of travel studies.

University officials here insist ownership of the deluxe properties is holding down prices for the young travelers.

“You’re able to hold the price against the fluctuating pound,” Coyle said. “Same with the Euro.” 

Before the university purchased its own mini-campus in the medieval town, “students would run from one location to another all around the city to make it from class to class,” Cortona Director Chris Robinson said in an email. “In earlier years, there has been the necessity to house students in two or more different convents, alberghi (pension-like establishments) etc. The students can now have consistent accommodations.”

At least 25 percent of UGA students now participate in travel studies programs during their schooling, in far-flung locales. South Africa is a current favorite, UGA study-abroad director Kasee Laster said.

Students need fairly deep pockets to study at the UGA-owned sites unless they receive some of the scholarship and financial aid programs on offer. Attending Cortona in the summer, for instance, costs $6,126 in room and board, not including airfare of $1,200 to $1,800 and in-state tuition of about $3,000, depending on student year and courseload.

Fees also stand at about $564. Additional expenses include cost of personal items and any extra-curricular travel.

Oxford currently costs about $8,000 a semester, not including tuition and airfare. A semester in Costa Rica is currently listed at $9,000.

Many globe-trotting students can defray costs with the HOPE scholarship or government grants such as the Pell grant. There are also other scholarship opportunities, such as one established to honor President Adams and his wife Mary.

For comparison, attending classes in Athens full-time for the nine-month academic year and paying room and board currently costs about $17,196 for undergraduates, according to university estimates.

UGA at Oxford director Kalpen Trivedi described the program in England as “transformative” and reasonably priced compared to other Oxford programs such as Stanford’s.

Costa Rica director Quint Newcomer cited the private dollars brought in by eco-tourists who stay at the 155-acre campus, funds that go back into programming for students or the local economy itself. For example, tours of local farms led by wives of campus workers earned $9,000 last year for the isolated rural economy of San Luis, Costa Rica

Coyle described the international properties as “breaking even” financially.

The UGA Foundation, the private fundraising arm of the university, bought the Oxford and Costa Rica sies at the request of the university. As part of the arrangement between the entities, the public university is paying the principal balance of the loans on the two sites, according to Coyle. Resident instruction funds that are footing the bill are a mix of direct state appropriation and tuition dollars.

Cortona is owned by the UGA Real Estate Foundation, a private non-profit foundation established to manage certain real estate acquisitions and construction projects for the university. UGA is also making debt payments to pay off the loan for the Cortona convent, according to documents from UGA. 

Here are more details about the properties' financing:

  •  “A jewel in the crown of the university,” according to UGA websites, the UGA at Oxford program is based in a three-story Victorian house on 104 Banbury Road, purchased in 2007 for $5.5 million. A $3.6 million renovation and interest brought total costs to about $9.6 million. (Total costs were defrayed by the sale of $3.3 million neighboring property also owned by the foundation). The state paid out $523,161 this fiscal year for 104 Banbury. That covered the annual debt payment on the house with about $80,000 in funds left over for other expenses, according to a statement released by UGA public affairs. About 200 students participate each year. Ten staff members are listed on websites. 
  • The ecolodge San Luis in Costa Rica was purchased for $895,000 in 2002, and $50,000 was spent later for additional land. After nearly $1.5 million in renovations, the pricetag for the rain forest campus stands at $2.4 million. It has been appraised at $2.9 million. This fiscal year, the state paid $142,332, covering all the debt payments with about $40,000 left over for other expenses. The site also gets the $75,000 annual allotment from the state for maintenance, Coyle said. About 250 students visit each year, along with some 70 faculty members and teaching assistants. Ten people staff offices in Athens and South America, although some 35 Costa Ricans work on site on the campus, leading sustainable agriculture tours and other services.
  • The Casa di Riposa in Cortona was purchased in 2002 for $1.3 million by the UGA Foundation. More than $2 million in subsequent renovations brought the total cost to $3.5 million. Public expenses for this fiscal year stand at $262,692, covering the annual debt with about $100,000 to spare for other site expenses. Up to 200 students attend each year.  Some nine staff members serve the program in Athens and Italy, according to program websites.
Del Martin May 13, 2011 at 07:55 PM
As a former student who studied in Cortona for a semester, I can tell you that it was an educational experience that was unrivaled in my years of undergraduate and graduate studies. This program and its facilities not only bring recognition and prestige to UGA and to Georgia, but they provide to students what a good university is supposed to provide: quality education to prepare good citizens who then pay back to the state (in taxes) and to the university (in donations).
Stephanie True Moss May 13, 2011 at 09:26 PM
I am one of the 8000 plus alumni of the University of Georgia's 42 year-old Cortona study abroad program. At the time we lived in a monastery high above the town square. We had only a shelf for our clothes - no closets and hand washed our laundry with cold water. We attended classes all over the town including in the elementary school (with small chairs and desks) outside the wall at the lowest part of the town. At the time, the program was only during the summer. Now with year-round classes it makes more sense for UGA to have the Casa di Riposa for the benefit of the program and of the students attending. While the 13th-century Casa di Riposa is much nicer than the monastery (later called Albergo Athens), it's not the Ritz Carlton! The Cortona Study Abroad program was such a huge influence in my life and I continue supporting it with my donations. I do wonder how the initial cost and upkeep these buildings compares to the buildings owned by UGA in Athens and other areas of the state.
Thomas M May 14, 2011 at 12:00 AM
I was a student on the UGA Cortona program prior to the 2002 purchase/renovation, and also visited the new facility in 2008. I can definitely say for sure that the new facility makes the entire experience more focused, allows students to better attend their studies, provides much needed tools, space, and environment for this program to be as successful as it is. Your article also does not even touch on the fact that a majority of the renovation expenses not only went to updating the buildings to a higher level of standards, but also to implement vital long-term benefits to the campus such as providing direct natural gas, some solar power, and some other sustainability efforts that help the campus become more self-sufficient and in the long term bring facility upkeep costs DOWN. From a technological standpoint, in 2002 there was not wifi. There were 4 antiquated computers for students – that nobody used – whereas in 2008 there was a full computer lab, building-wide wifi, other technology improvements that even compared with every campus building in Athens is only the basic minimums for a modern university student to be able to study, live, and communicate. Compared to some of the tax initiatives for Athens-Clarke County from the 2010 election that our tax money is now going to, I'd say UGA's study abroad facilities a small yet highly reasonable and beneficial overall taxpayer cost and is worth the cost for their contributed relevance & value to the community & state.
Nancy Zechella May 14, 2011 at 01:08 AM
A child of mine attended the Cortona program as a one semester transfer student from Tulane, before the purchase of this campus. I told her if I had known she would receive "daily maid service" as a college student, I would not have let her attend.
Quint Newcomer May 16, 2011 at 05:37 PM
The article fails to mention that the $75,ooo included for maintenance in the lease is standard part of all property leases UGA has for off-campus facilities and is based on the same dollar per square foot calculations used for off-campus leases in Athens.
Joan Stroer White May 16, 2011 at 09:10 PM
Thanks for the additional information Dr. Newcomer. We were depending on various university experts to explain how public and private funds are allocated for the international sites, and would have been happy to include an explanation of how officials arrived at the $75,000 figure in public dollars for maintenance at the Costa Rica campus. It was not provided, but that might have been because conversations were limited to the expenses for Oxford, Costa Rica and Cortona. I have no special knowledge currently of how the university and its private foundations have arranged the funding for other sites, on campus or off campus.

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