Getting Schooled

GaBiz Editor in Chief talks with Chancellor of the University System of Georgia Sonny Perdue about the HOPE Scholarship’s 30th anniversary, student loans, and how the state stays competitive through education.
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A strong continuing education system is key to maintaining Georgia’s status as a top place to do business. The University System of Georgia (USG)—made up of 26 institutions, including four research universities, four comprehensive universities, nine state universities, and nine state colleges—leads the charge. The 2022–2023 school year saw more than 334,000 students enrolled in the USG statewide, 35 percent more than in 2003. Here, Chancellor Sonny Perdue, who served as the state’s 81st governor from 2003 to 2011, shares insight about the HOPE scholarship program’s educational boost, how USG is helping mitigate student loans, and how USG is rising to meet the needs of Georgia-based companies.  

The HOPE scholarship celebrated its 30th anniversary this year. What have been the greatest impacts on education in the state as a result? 
Since 2005, more than 600,000 USG students have graduated with their bachelor’s degrees—70 percent of whom have benefited from the HOPE or Zell Miller scholarships. And among those who received HOPE or Zell, more than 54 percent had no college debt when they graduated.  

The HOPE and Zell Miller scholarships clearly benefit Georgians and have helped create a more educated Georgia. You can see the results in the $20.1 billion economic impact USG has on Georgia [for fiscal year 2022, based on a study by the Selig Center for Economic Growth, Terry College of Business, University of Georgia], as well as in the recruitment and support of leading-edge companies and industry leaders like Hyundai Motor Group, Global Payments, and Cisco Systems, among others. 

We’re thankful now to Governor Kemp, the Georgia Lottery, and our state leaders for their dedication to higher education and these 30 years of working together. More than $26.8 billion has been raised since the first lottery tickets were sold in 1993, and that funding for scholarships like HOPE and Zell are moving this great state forward. 

University budgets can be a hot-button issue. How can USG stay competitive amidst cuts?
For years, Georgia has been one of the best states in which to do business, and for nine years in a row [it’s been rated] the very best. Technology and other innovative firms line up to hire our graduates from across the state, including graduates who come from two of the top-16 ranked public research universities in the nation [Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia]. Our partnerships play a critical role in meeting the needs of Georgians, like Albany State University’s work with the Phoebe Putney Health System to increase the number of nursing and emergency medical technicians who serve our communities. 

All those things reflect the investments by state leaders and the General Assembly over the years that have helped our state become better educated and prosperous. I will disagree with you that our budget is a hot-button issue. I think our leaders, including Governor Kemp, Speaker Burns, and Lt. Governor Jones, understand the impact one of the best public university systems in the nation has on Georgia and they are willing to support us in continuing our mission. We may occasionally have disagreements, but I appreciate their willingness to talk through that and have good conversations. There will always be challenges—I know a certain governor who faced twin recessions and made some difficult decisions. Even then, we kept the state’s Triple-A bond rating and set the stage for a recovery that helped Georgians and the state prosper. 

We invest in our people and build and maintain strong academic programs that meet the needs of industry and our students. Nothing about that has changed and it’s what we continue to do. 

In your view, what are the key components necessary for Georgia to stay competitive from an education perspective? 
When I got back from D.C., having served as Secretary of Agriculture, I logged into LinkedIn. My profile said, “Born a dirt farmer, tried a couple of other jobs, but could never escape.” Well, it now says, “Maybe the most impactful job I’ve ever had, Chancellor of the University System of Georgia.” 

We touch the lives of people where it really counts. That’s what higher education is all about: helping Georgians grow and learn about their possibilities and exposing them to the dreams they may have and never thought possible. 

Students are our No. 1 priority and our top customers. We need to be more flexible and nimbler in how we “do” higher education as we increase the value of their college degree and boost the return of their investment in us. So, over the past year, we’ve done things like increasing student access to career counseling information to help them understand the modern marketplace and make smart career choices.  

We also want to be more transparent and accountable. To help students and their families make informed decisions about how USG campuses can help them, we have launched the Georgia Degrees Pay website via usg.edu. You can find data on student successes, costs, affordability, and earning potential—allowing all our stakeholders to access data comparing student progress, success rates, borrowing, debt, and average earnings by degree for every one of our 26 public colleges and universities. 

It’s critical to maintain our priority of affordability. Thanks to the leadership of the Board of Regents, we’ve not raised tuition in six of the past eight years. In fact, we’re excited to offer the seventh-lowest tuition in the country. Last year, we actually reduced college costs by eliminating a mandatory special institutional fee that had been charged systemwide since 2009. That decision is now saving students and families anywhere between $340 to $1,088 annually. 

University System of Georgia Chancellor Sonny Perdue visits the Augusta University Health Sciences campus in Augusta. Photo: Michael Holahan

How is USG adapting to meet the workforce challenges presented by Georgia’s ever-growing economy? How is our education system partnering with businesses in the state to help meet their needs? 
Our institutions have a renewed focus on aligning degrees to industry needs, from nursing and teaching to logistics and aviation. Requests for new degree programs must now include job postings, skills training, employment projections, and expected industry support. We also expect our campus leaders to listen to labor demands and work with local communities and employers.  

USG institutions are part of the workforce development efforts of our state, and I’m doing what I can to emphasize that effort. These days, students and parents want to know that a student will be gainfully employed after graduation and that they will learn the right skills needed for highly skilled and high-paying jobs. That’s why our curriculum within the university system has changed over the years to include programs that prepare students for newer jobs in areas like financial technology, logistics and supply chain, cybersecurity, film and television, and so on. 

So, among other examples, at Dalton State College, where many of the students are the first in their families to attend college, we include some of the soft skills needed to do things like prepare for job interviews in addition to the academic curriculum. In fall 2021, South Georgia State College launched a new bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering technology with the aim to produce graduates skilled in technical manufacturing design, development, operation, and evaluation. It was purposely created with industry input and designed to address employer needs and boost the regional economy. 

We also have ongoing initiatives and industry collaborations with statewide impacts. The Georgia Film Academy supports an industry that in fiscal year 2022 spent $4.4 billion in Georgia, a new record. The Georgia Fintech Academy, which is housed at Georgia State University, has helped more than 3,500 students since 2019 get ahead in a billion-dollar industry that includes 200+ Georgia-based companies. 

I know I’ll make other campuses mad that I didn’t mention their efforts in aviation, nursing, and other critical areas in that way. I could talk all day on this topic alone. 

Student loans have been a major topic of discussion lately. According to a 2023 report by the Education Data Initiative, 43.6 million borrowers have federal student loan debt, with an average total balance as high as $40,505. What is the USG doing to create good value for students and help educate them about their financial responsibilities if they borrow? 
We’ve worked hard over the past several years to better educate students about options to borrow less money. Our “Know More Borrow Less” initiative now provides students with updated tools including a standardized, digital financial offer letter. We want them to clearly see their cost of attendance, financial aid awarded, and loans available with a recommended loan amount rather than just the maximum offered, so they borrow only what they need. 

All 26 institutions have also simplified, standardized, and automated how students and families can resolve FAFSA verification issues. This dramatically reduces time spent trying to understand and maybe being derailed by a complex federal process. 

We’ve increased our use of artificial intelligence services such as “chatbots” to respond to student and parent questions more quickly and consistently. We’re also customizing videos that can be embedded in digital communications.  

I mentioned earlier that Georgia remains among the lowest in the nation and across the South for in-state tuition and fees. Affordability is a key part of this and a system priority. 

I realize you can’t tell by looking at me, but this is not your grandpa’s university system! Our presidents, faculty, and staff are focused not only on academics but on industry, because the end product they offer needs to be relevant, not just for rankings but for the workforce.  

Above all, students are our customers, and I guarantee you we are focused on our customers. We’re working with the board to do everything we can to make Georgia not just one of the best university systems but the very best in the nation. 

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