Online Christian Higher Ed Skyrockets

Career College Central Summary:

  • Stepping out of the sweltering sun in March 2004, Jerry Falwell Sr. walked into a sprawling 6,000-person call center at the University of Phoenix, where throngs of recruiters were cold calling prospective students. “Is there a mirror making the room larger?” Falwell asked. “Or are all these people real?”
  • “They are real, Dr. Falwell,” said Michael Clifford, a fundraising consultant and entrepreneur in the world of higher education. He invited Falwell to visit the fast-growing, for-profit university to get ideas for a then-struggling Liberty University, which Falwell had founded in 1971.
  • Falwell was skeptical about Clifford’s boosterism for online learning. “Son, you can’t learn on a computer,” Falwell had once said during a phone conversation, according to Clifford.
  • At the time of Falwell’s visit, Grand Canyon University (GCU) was an obscure Phoenix college on the verge of collapse. Founded by Southern Baptists in 1949, by 2003 it had nearly closed and was $16 million in the red.
  • Today, GCU is the sole Christian, for-profit college traded on the stock market. It hosts NCAA Division I basketball, is rapidly building out its campus, and is adding majors for its roughly 60,000 students (52,000 online).
  • It has a market capitalization of $2.1 billion.Liberty, by enrollment measures, is now the sixth-largest online university in the United States, with more than 100,000 (90,000 online) students. (The largest is the University of Phoenix with 241,000 students.)
  • Liberty also hosts Division I football, and is rapidly adding buildings and majors, including a faith-based medical school, on its 7,000-acre Lynchburg, Virginia, campus.
  • “Grand Canyon and Liberty are using the same strategy, but one is for-profit and one is nonprofit,” Clifford says. In 10 short years, both have become the largest Christian colleges in the country—largely by anticipating the enormous demand for online college education.

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