Sonny Perdue says Georgia must sell value of college degree

University System of Georgia Chancellor Sonny Perdue said its schools must find more ways to recruit students and help them graduate as it faces a projected enrollment decline in a few years.

One recruitment strategy could be encouraging adult learners to seek degrees or certificates through some of its online programs, the former two-term governor told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in his first interview since becoming chancellor earlier this month.

He also suggested having more advisers work one-on-one with struggling students.

“We’ve got to sell the long-term value of higher education,” Perdue said Wednesday in his sparsely decorated office, a block away from his old workspace at the state Capitol.

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Chancellor Sonny Perdue at his office in downtown Atlanta on April 20, 2022. The former two-term Georgia governor was announced as University System of Georgia chancellor in March. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Chancellor Sonny Perdue at his office in downtown Atlanta on April 20, 2022. The former two-term Georgia governor was announced as University System of Georgia chancellor in March. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

caption arrowCaption
Chancellor Sonny Perdue at his office in downtown Atlanta on April 20, 2022. The former two-term Georgia governor was announced as University System of Georgia chancellor in March. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Perdue said recruitment and retention are key as employers offer higher starting salaries across Georgia. Since the pandemic began, more young people went into the workforce instead of enrolling in college to support their families.

The 340,000-student system had a slight enrollment decline last fall, its first in about a decade. System leaders have said there may be greater declines ahead because of decreasing birth rates nationally. Several of the system’s schools have six-year graduation rates below 50%. The system’s budget is largely based on enrollment.

The state’s Board of Regents approved a plan about a decade ago to consolidate some of its schools as a cost-cutting measure after the Great Recession. Perdue said he has no current consolidation plans.

“We’ve got some challenged institutions and there may be some tough decisions down the road,” he said. “We’re not at that point now.”

ExploreSmaller Georgia colleges grapple with declining enrollment

Perdue’s appointment came after a yearlong battle waged by critics who said he lacked higher education administrative experience. Perdue said he understood the criticism, but pointed to his leadership track record to show that he can be an effective chancellor.

The 75-year-old Republican said his interest in the job stemmed from a conversation with Gov. Brian Kemp after former Chancellor Steve Wrigley announced his plans to retire a year ago. Perdue had just completed a four-year stint in then-President Donald Trump’s Cabinet as agriculture secretary.

“We talked about the state as a whole. ... We talked about my interests. We talked about whether I had any interest in applying for the job of chancellor, and that’s how it began,” Perdue said.

His first cousin — former U.S. Sen. David Perdue — is running against Kemp for the Republican Party’s nomination for governor.

Perdue’s interest in the job sparked a rare protest outside the system’s office last year and an online campaign against his candidacy by some students and faculty. The criticism shifted to the selection process administered by the state Board of Regents, a 19-member group with several Kemp campaign contributors.

The board voted without opposition to make Perdue its sole finalist for the job after private interviews with him and two other candidates.

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Students gather in front of the University System of Georgia offices in downtown Atlanta on Tuesday afternoon, April 27, 2021, to protest against former Gov. Sonny Perdue becoming the new chancellor. (Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

Students gather in front of the University System of Georgia offices in downtown Atlanta on Tuesday afternoon, April 27, 2021, to protest against former Gov. Sonny Perdue becoming the new chancellor. (Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

caption arrowCaption
Students gather in front of the University System of Georgia offices in downtown Atlanta on Tuesday afternoon, April 27, 2021, to protest against former Gov. Sonny Perdue becoming the new chancellor. (Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Perdue said he does not have plans to ideologically reshape the system’s 26 colleges and universities.

“I believe in academic freedom. I believe in freedom of expression. I believe in First Amendment rights for everyone,” he said.

Perdue expressed his support for recent changes to the system’s post-tenure review process, which some faculty say will make it tougher for professors to speak candidly about campus issues for fear they may lose their jobs.

The American Association of University Professors took the rare step of censuring the University System of Georgia last month over the changes, a move some believe will hurt in recruiting top-flight professors from other schools.

“The policies are not mean-spirited,” Perdue said. “They’re meant to hold people accountable for what they’re doing.”

Perdue said he’ll explore ways to keep tuition affordable. He said the state’s budget increase for the system, which resulted in the system removing its special institutional fee, will help many students stay in school. The fee ranged from $200 to more than $500 a semester.

Perdue, who met with student government leaders and other groups before becoming chancellor, said he’ll continue to visit with stakeholders. Sometimes, he said, the meetings will be a surprise.

“I’m in listening mode right now,” he said.


Sonny Perdue

Birthplace: Perry, Georgia

Political History: Georgia state senator, 1991-2002; governor, 2003-2011; U.S. Department of Agriculture secretary, 2017-2021.

Personal: Perdue was a walk-in for the Georgia Bulldogs football team. He served as a captain in the U.S. Air Force. Perdue was also a veterinarian.

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