The story of John Sperling, University of Phoenix founder

John Sperling ran the University of Phoenix until two years ago.

John G. Sperling died this week at the age of 93. If you haven't heard of him, you probably have heard of the school he founded, the for-profit University of Phoenix.

The University of Phoenix has served over 1 million people since its founding, and taught hundreds of thousands of students at once through online programs and locations spread across the U.S. Since it was founded in 1978, the school has sought to help working adults complete their degree, though it's faced criticism over how much debt students take on, and how few of them graduate.

Sperling did a fair amount of bootstrap-pulling himself. He left behind a humble, abusive upbringing to become a merchant marine before eventually getting his own formal education. Only after a career as a professor, in his 50s, did Sperling branch out into for-profit education and start on the road to becoming a billionaire. He ran the company until just two years ago.  

Emily Hanford is the education correspondent for American Radio Works who had the last interview with Sperling nearly two years ago. He spent part of their conversation defending his school:

"Traditional education has slammed the door. Where in the hell are you going to educate these people? Well, it's going to be places like the University of Phoenix, or they aren't going to be educated, period," Sperling said.

Here are some facts Hanford learned about Sperling:

He was highly critical of elite higher education, even though he was himself a product of that system. Starting in community college, Sperling transferred to Reed College in Oregon and went on to receive two doctorates: one from UC Berkeley and one from the University of Cambridge. His downtown Phoenix office held the complete works of Emily Dickinson.

Of his fellow undergraduates at Reed, he said, "I loathed them... because of their privilege." In his words, they were always saying: "'I got where I did because of all the hard work,' and I thought, 'You stupid son of a bitch, you don't know how privileged you are.'"

He was politically liberal, and at one point identified as a socialist. He was passionate about union organizing and led a faculty strike in 1968.

Even so, Sperling ultimately had no qualms about making money. Starting with just eight students in 1976, the University of Phoenix initially catered to older adults finishing bachelor's careers by paying out of pocket. Now, 90 percent of its income stream comes from the federal government in the form of student loan funds.

Hanford's documentary is called "The Rise of Phoenix".

About the author

David Gura is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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