John Sperling, founder of the University of Phoenix (UOP), died on August 22 at age 93.
When he first came up with the idea for UOP in the 1970s, Sperling wanted to make education accessible for all people.
“His focus was on bettering people’s lives,” said Jorge Klor de Alva, a former University of Phoenix president and Apollo Group senior vice president who knew Sperling for more than 40 years. “This university was focused on trying to help people succeed.”
Illiterate as a teenager, Sperling soon began to love learning, and education quickly became his entire life. After graduating from San Francisco City College, he went on to attain his graduate degree and doctorate and eventually became a humanities professor at San Jose State University.
Forbes Magazine estimated his net worth to be $1.7 billion in 2005. Since that time it has declined to less than $1 billion while his university faced criticism concerning its finances and efficiency.
“Sperling’s intensity, tireless work ethic and self- professed ‘joy in conflict’ found fertile ground in the often controversial for-profit higher education industry that he founded,” according to a memoriam posted by the company, where his son, Peter Sperling, is chairman.
The University of Phoenix currently operates more than 100 locations within the US, as well as an online-only study program. In 2010, there were 470,800 students enrolled, many of them older students who appreciate the more flexible hours. Since then, the number of students have declined to 300,800 – a 36% drop. In 2012 the company announced the closing of 115 locations.
The school has been referred to as “McEducation,” focusing on group discussions and giving credit for life experiences. Sperling asked his teachers to facilitate discussions, and famously said, “Anyone caught lecturing will be shot.”
For-profit schools across the nation are facing similar scrutiny for their low graduation rates and low loan repayment rates.
“Sperling was probably the first university president to develop a model that was predicated on customer first,” Richard Chait, a professor of higher education at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said in an interview for a 2010 article.
Sperling was denied accreditation by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, prompting him to discuss his idea for a for-profit university with officials in Arizona in 1976. Although he did not meet success right away, he kept at it until he was finally accredited. He then expanded back into California, then on to New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, Nevada and Hawaii, until finally beginning an online campus in 1989 and becoming a publicly traded Fortune 500 company with 12,000 workers.
“University of Phoenix is my proudest legacy,” Sperling said in a 2011 interview with The Republic. “Knowing that over 1 million staff, faculty and students have benefited in some way from the university is something I’m very proud of.”