John Sperling, a Higher-Ed Pioneer, Left Disciples Across For-Profit Sector

August 25, 2014

The legacy of John G. Sperling, the founder of the University of Phoenix who died on Friday at the age of 93, includes more than the sprawling institution that he began in an Arizona union hall in 1976 with eight students.

Mr. Sperling was instrumental in creating today's for-profit-college industry, a sector now known for both its focus on working adults and the prominence of giant publicly traded companies.

Several of the companies that now dominate the industry are led by executives who either worked closely with Mr. Sperling at Phoenix or learned the education business while working at the Apollo Education Group, the university's parent company.

In the 2013 fiscal year, the 15 publicly traded higher-education companies generated $16.4-billion in revenue, according to BMO Capital Markets. Nearly half of that, about $7.5-billion, came from Apollo and three other companies led or formerly led by those executives.

Those executives are:

Brian Mueller, president and chief executive of Grand Canyon Education. A former president of the Apollo Group, he directed the explosive growth of online enrollment at Phoenix.

Todd S. Nelson, former chairman of the Education Management Corporation (EDMC). He was president, chief executive, and chairman of the board at Apollo.

Craig D. Swenson, chancellor of EDMC’s Argosy University. Among other previous posts, he served as provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Phoenix.

Andrew S. Clark, president and chief executive of Bridgepoint Education. Though not as close an associate of Mr. Sperling's as the others, he worked at Phoenix for nearly a decade early in his career.

Beyond the sphere of publicly traded companies, former close associates of Mr. Sperling include Laura Palmer Noone, a former University of Phoenix president who later headed Potomac College and now serves on the board of the Lumina Foundation, and Tony Digiovanni, a former president of Apollo's UOP Online who is now chief executive of Ameritas College Educational Services.

It's also safe to say that dozens of former Apollo executives now fill the lower ranks at every major company in the sector. And while the university's enrollments have declined of late, it is still the largest private for-profit institution in North America.