John Sperling came from a poor background and became a 50s beatnik, merchant seaman, activist and self-made billionaire, who founded the University of Phoenix in 1973, one of the most successful educational organisations in the world, built on a mixture of online learning and traditional course delivery. As they say of education “If you want to move a graveyard, don’t expect much help from the occupants!” Sperling understood this and as a maverick educator and pioneer in adult and vocational learning, opened up a challenge to traditional education.
You’ve got to love a man who became an entrepreneur at 53, campaigns for the legalisation of cannabis, funds longevity and environmental research, funded the first cloned cat and contributed large amounts of money to the Obama campaign.
Sperling was born into a poor background, dyslectic and was seriously ill as a child, spending six months in bed. He became a seaman, shipyard worker then academic and trade-unionist. Unsatisfied with being a professor at San Hose State University, he started to create vocational courses but became disillusioned with the view that a University didn’t need more students. At this point he decided to jump ship.
University of Phoenix
Sperling came late to education and resented the traditional model that sees the 18 year-old undergraduate as the archetypical learner. He was also critical of the poor pedagogy and teaching in traditional Universities and wanted to create a modern institution that focused on the student, with new models of teaching. So he cleverly grabbed the University of Phoenix brand and from those ashes created one of the largest Universities in the world.
Faced with ferocious, and as he describes it ‘mean-spirited’, opposition from all quarters of the educational establishment, he forged ahead. This was long before the internet matured but Sperling spotted the opportunity to learn online and built systems that fuelled the growth of the University of Phoenix, which had to fight against traditional educational detractors, even to survive. The success of the project in student numbers, output and business terms has all but silenced these sceptics.
Unusually, for a billionaire, he is left-leaning and driven by a passion for helping poor students get education and jobs. It was Sperling who opened up the educational landscape in the US and elsewhere, so that 12% of all US undergraduates are at private universities and take up 24% of grants for low-income students. In The Great Divide: Retro Vs. Metro America we see a highly political animal, fighting for the Democratic Party and against the old racial, ethnic, religious, political and geographical divides in the US.
Learning from Sperling
What can we learn from Sperling?
Innovation comes from outside. Innovation in education tends to come from outsiders. Sperling was a maverick who succeeded because he was not hidebound by tradition and institutional inertia. With the objectivity of the outsider who entered the system with some worldly experience, he felt it was narrow, overly-academic, had poor pedagogy and not at all meritocratic. Education is a slow learner and needs to be hurried along by external tutors.
Technology scales. He showed that technology, within reason and in a blended context, was the key to reducing cost, personalising learning and capable of meeting the need of students who didn’t want to be campus-bound. Most pedagogic advances have indeed been made from technology, such as search (Google), crowdsourced knowledge (Wikipedia), video instruction (YouTube) and so on. Sperling was among the first to apply online technology to volume courses in Higher Education.
Higher Ed is NOT just about 18 year olds. Adult learning (lifelong learning) has come of age and the 18 year old undergraduate is no longer the sole model for Higher education. Sperling, came to tertiary education late and saw how poorly he was treated. Convinced that there was a mass market in vocational and adult education, he created one of the largest universities in the world, largely on the back of the promise of employment.
Vocational learning matters. Mass youth and graduate unemployment has taken root in many countries around the world and governments now recognise that an educational system too weighted towards academic subjects may do as much harm as good. Economies with a good blend of academic and vocational, such as Germany and some countries in the Far East flourish, while those that have the dead hand of history on their education systems falter. Everyone has to leave school sometime and to leave vocational learning poorly funded is a mistake,
The University of Phoenix, with over 500,000 students, is now part of the Apollo Group, an international private educational group, that owns BPP in the UK, and universities in Chile and Mexico. But it is not without its critics.
The University of Phoenix, and its clones in private education, have been accused of luring unsuitable candidates into courses that prove unsuitable, resulting in high drop-out rates. The result is large numbers of students saddled with debt, that don’t end up with any real advantage in the job market. Sperling has responded, by some pretty tough lobbying in Washington, arguing that his model enfranchised huge numbers of people and that drop-out is common in many traditional educational institutions, and that one would expect it to be higher in his demographic.
In his book For-profit Higher Education: Developing a World Class Workforce (1997), a look at three types of funded education; 1) public, 2) not-for-profit and 3) for-profit, he gave an analysis that showed public and not-for-profit education incurred state costs of several thousand dollars a year, compared to the gains of several hundreds of dollars a year for students from for-profit organisations. This is an interesting analysis in that it attempts to lay bare the complete (and complex) cost model. Sperling has a PhD in Economics from Cambridge and understands the cost variables that are often quietly ignored by those justifying ever-higher levels of state funding in education. This has turned into a complex, but healthy, debate in the US around the true cost of education, including drop-out rates, defaults on loans, lost opportunity costs and so on, something that is starting to happen elsewhere in the world, as debt-driven, economic woes stalk the planet. Whatever, your political beliefs, it is vital we address the true economics of education, to optimise the system as we go forward.
Sperling is a provocateur, constantly at odds with the establishment views on education and other topics but has always been committed to students from poor backgrounds. His principles include; ignoring your detractors, taking ‘bet-your shirt’ risks, challenging authority and never setting a goal. This unorthodox approach to education and business has broken the mould and shown that online education works on scale for adults who won’t or can’t conform to traditional timetables and courses. As one of the most successful examples of online learning on the planet Sperling is a true innovator in online learning.
Sperling, John (1997). For-profit Higher Education: Developing a World Class Workforce. Transaction Publishers, U.S.
Sperling, John (2000). Rebel With a Cause. Transaction Publishers, U.S.
Sperling, John (2005). The Great Divide: Retro Vs. Metro America. Polipoint Press.