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Online classes could hit revenue for Georgia universities

In this Thursday, May 7, 2020 photo, University of Georgia graduates line up to take photos at the University of Georgia arch  in Athens, Ga. The spring commencement, which would have been held on Friday, was moved to the fall due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Joshua L. Jones/Athens Banner-Herald via AP)
In this Thursday, May 7, 2020 photo, University of Georgia graduates line up to take photos at the University of Georgia arch in Athens, Ga. The spring commencement, which would have been held on Friday, was moved to the fall due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Joshua L. Jones/Athens Banner-Herald via AP) (Joshua L. Jones)

ATLANTA – Georgia’s 26 public universities could lose nearly $500 million in room, board and student fees if no students return to campus this fall, according to information obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution via a public records request.

The University System of Georgia made the estimates as some faculty, staff and students pressure administrators to conduct all classes online, or at least offer that as an option, in an effort to prevent the further spread of COVID-19 infections.

Regents and University System Chancellor Steve Wrigley have consistently called for all universities to offer in-person instruction. Professors have said that administrators are requiring them to offer at least some in-person sessions, although many classes may be partly online.

Online instruction received mixed reviews during the spring semester. The biggest complaint from students was internet connection problems where they lived.

Twenty-five University System presidents wrote a letter dated July 8 to the system’s chancellor, Steve Wrigley, that said resuming “in-person classes this fall will be a difficult but important task, and it is one we are committed to achieving, as it serves the best interests of our students and the State of Georgia.”

Wrigley’s budget team later estimated that going all online would forfeit at least $479.3 million in revenue. The system, which will receive about $2 billion in state funds this budget year, lost or refunded more than $300 million during the spring and summer semesters due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Losing more revenue could be hard for the 330,000-student system, after lawmakers cut state funding by 10% as part of overall budget cuts and regents chose not to raise tuition in the spring.

In an email obtained by the AJC, Wrigley said that the $479 million figure is likely conservative, given that it’s unclear how many students will choose to attend the fall semester. He also says it could have a “significant impact on employment.”

System officials said the campus experience is important in response to questions about its approach to fall learning plans.

“We continue to evaluate options that support quality instruction and prioritize the health and safety of our faculty, staff and students,” said Aaron Diamant, the system’s spokesman. “While we successfully made the transition to online-only instruction last spring, we believe in the value and importance to students of the campus experience.”