JACKSON, Miss. (AP) _ Mississippi on Thursday hired its first higher education commissioner, and he said he would make it a priority to get more high school students to go to college.

W. Ray Cleere, vice chancellor of the University System of Georgia, was named to the new $80,000 post for four years, beginning Dec. 1, the state College Board announced. Cleere, 51, was chosen from 57 candidates.

Board President Bryce Griffis of Starkville said the state was looking for ''a single spokesman'' for the issues that face higher education. Nearly 60,000 students are enrolled in Mississippi's eight state-funded universities.

Although the College Board last year recommended closing two universities, Cleere said he would not close them. ''You don't have too many institutions. You have many underfunded institutions,'' Cleere said.

Cleere said he would work closely with Department of Education officials to spur interest in a college education among high school students.

''Mississippi, just like Georgia, has one of the lowest percentages of students going to college and we need to make efforts to increase college attendance,'' he said.

Cleere also said university salaries have to rise higher to prevent educators from moving to higher-paying jobs in other states.

Cleere received his bachelor's degree in history from Appalachian State University, master's in counseling at the University of Mississippi and doctorate in counseling at the University of Georgia.

He became a department head at West Georgia College in 1967 and three years later moved to Valdosta State College. He was vice president and dean of faculty at Valdosta from 1971 until accepting the vice chancellorship in 1982.