Six years ago, Grand Canyon University faced a threat plaguing many small private schools: bankruptcy.
But after a business model turnaround and expansion of its online curriculum, GCU is growing at a rapid pace. Student enrollment this fall is more than five times what it was in 2005, and GCU is embarking on a two-year campus makeover to accommodate the growth.
A groundbreaking ceremony Friday launched the construction of GCU’s new 5,000-seat events center, the main project of the school’s $60 million campus expansion plan. Purple and white balloons marked the corners of the future basketball court, and a handful of guests sat on the sample stadium seats to watch the ceremony.
The 135,000-square-foot center is one of four buildings being erected during the first wave of expansion, the others being a dormitory, a student recreation center and a classroom building.
The events center is slated to open in October 2011. The other buildings will be completed by December.
The campus expansion was fueled by enrollment growth, said Brian Mueller, GCU’s chief executive officer. Online enrollment increased from 21,955 in fall 2008 to 43,000 this fall.
On-campus enrollment grew from about 2,700 in fall 2008 to 4,000 students. The school is aiming for 6,000 on-campus students by 2013.
After becoming a publicly traded company in 2008, GCU’s parent company, Grand Canyon Education Inc., sold shares at $12. The stock price has doubled to $24, according to Mueller.
The combination of becoming a publicly traded school and extending the online program to working adults made expansion possible, Mueller said.
"For us, it was definitely a vehicle in providing the capital to allow us to expand," GCU President Kathy Player said.
The second wave of expansion will consist of two more dormitories, a classroom building and athletic fields, scheduled to finish in 2013.
Online colleges are growing in popularity, said Richard Garrett, managing director of the consulting firm Eduventures’ Online Higher Education Learning Collaborative. Eduventures estimates that 2.1 million people took 80 percent or more of their higher education online by fall 2009, with for-profits like GCU taking 49 percent of that share.
Mueller said GCU continues to hire faculty and staff to keep the average class size at about 20 students.
A large online student community may be more appealing for historically religious schools like GCU, a Christian school, because they can broaden the reach of their missionary activity, Garrett said. GCU offers online Bible study classes, Player said.
Schools promoting online classes emphasize convenience and availability. But the two are quickly becoming commodities that may not fit into the branding of the non-online portion of some institutions. Schools offering online classes face the challenge of creating genuine online versions of their non-online experience, Garrett said.