Grand Canyon University’s achievements are not only impressive, they’re trendsetting.
It’s not an overstatement: The character and vision of Grand Canyon University (GCU) are simply unmatched among institutions of higher learning. GCU is a fully accredited, NCAA Division I school where the tuition for on-campus students—which amounts to about a third of the tuition charged at similar universities—has not been raised in eight years.
And consider this: Since 2008, the on-campus student population has increased from 900 to 15,500. With money from capital markets, a $1 billion investment in new construction, infrastructure and technology will have been completed in only a decade (the plan has four years remaining). In fact, so many new buildings are in various stages of development that students affectionately call their school “Grand Construction University.”
The size of the campus at 33rd Avenue and Camelback Road in Phoenix has expanded from 95 acres to 250 acres in less than 10 years, with plans to add another 150 acres within the next 10 years. The university is assisted in this endeavor by National Bank of Arizona.
“National Bank of Arizona has been extremely helpful in providing us access to capital through a consortium debt facility that can be used to help fund the expansion of our campus,” says Brian Mueller, GCU’s president and CEO. “We work in partnership with the bank to look at new services that would benefit the university and our students.”
Grand Canyon University is a private, interdenominational Christian school, with nine colleges, nearly 200 academic programs, and more than 20 athletic programs for men and women. About 70 percent of GCU students are majoring in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) disciplines, or in business.
While the national average for medical school acceptance among premed students is about 42 percent, GCU believes its placement rate is higher than the national average.
About half of the 15,500 students enrolled on campus live on campus. And 25 percent of the on-campus students come from California.
“We’re not only keeping more kids in Arizona,” Mueller says. “We’re reversing the migration to California.”
The university’s Christian worldview is central to its identity, but it makes no religious demands of students. Being Christian isn’t a requirement for admission—chapel attendance is completely voluntary. Yet the time reserved for worship and reflection routinely draws between 5,000 and 7,000 students every week.
GCU’s commitment to transforming the neighborhood and community in which it’s situated is broader than at most other universities across the country. Its Habitat for Humanity program is the largest in the nation. The university offers one of the most extensive public school tutoring and mentoring initiatives in the U.S.; GCU students help inner city high school students with challenging coursework.
Three years ago, GCU launched the Neighborhood Safety Initiative, a $1 million partnership with the Phoenix Police Department to support crime-suppression efforts. Undertakings like these have resulted in a 30 percent drop in the last year in the crime rate in ZIP code 85017, where the university is located, and a 30 percent rise in the area’s home values.
“The single most exciting defining characteristic of our students is that they want to be involved in the university’s effort to revitalize the entire surrounding community of hardworking families and restore it to middle-class status,” says Mueller, who came to GCU in July 2008 after spending 22 years leading the Apollo Education Group, parent company of the University of Phoenix.
A unique plan to bring the tutoring program full-circle revolves around full-tuition Neighborhood Scholarships, available for up to 200 high school students each year in the surrounding area. Recipients are college-bound teens who have spent at least 50 hours being tutored by GCU students who earn at least a 3.3 GPA and who demonstrate financial need. In exchange for the scholarship, these incoming college students volunteer to tutor a new group of high school students.
“When I first arrived at GCU,” Mueller says, “the university had the beginnings of a brand, but no systems or processes in place to help build it. We invested a huge percentage of the $254 million raised from our initial public offering in November 2008 (and hundreds of millions more dollars since then) into technology on this campus—because none of what we have now was here in 2008.”
Mueller also knew that with the recession looming, the best way to leverage the expenses of the physical campus and keep tuition affordable was to create an innovative hybrid model of higher education that served two different demographics.
At that time, 99 percent of universities across the country focused on the 18-year-old high school graduate wanting the traditional college experience, he says. But the market for 30-something working adults seeking to finish a bachelor’s degree or pursue a graduate degree online is actually much larger. He set out to build the Grand Canyon University brand “based upon the traditional campus— excellence of our academic programs, athletic programs, theater, music and debate programs”—banking on attracting online students as a result. The strategy worked.
“The stronger the ground campus got, the more value online degrees had,” Mueller says. “If you take our infrastructure to provide higher education and apply it across 15,000 on-campus students and 60,000 online students, the efficiencies are unbelievable. It allows us to keep tuition low on both sides.”
Affordability is always key
Mueller considers low costs to be another significant accomplishment for the university.
“Our goal right from the outset was to make private Christian higher education affordable to all social classes of Americans,” he says. So while other private faith-based universities across the country may charge $50,000 or more a year for tuition, housing and fees, GCU’s published tuition rate is $16,500 a year; room and board room and board starts at $6,250.
Although the mean grade point average of incoming freshmen is approaching 3.6, students with a 3.0 GPA are eligible to be admitted, Mueller says. And because students with a 3.0 GPA also are eligible for institutional scholarships, the average cost that students pay in tuition is $8,000 a year, he says.
Values remain paramount
“Cost and efficiency are very important to this university,” says Gary Naquin, a corporate banker and senior vice president for National Bank of Arizona, where GCU has been a client for close to three years. “It’s important that NB|AZ demonstrates shared values with GCU. So when the university inquired about our employees participating in GCU’s Habitat for Humanity, we said we’d be happy to work alongside the students.”
“We appreciate NB|AZ’s passion and commitment to community involvement,” Mueller says.
Grand Canyon University’s goals for the next five years are “lofty, but achievable,” Mueller says. GCU will continue efforts to transition to nonprofit status, to more closely reflect its Christian values.
In the meantime, GCU intends to double the on-campus student population to between 25,000 and 30,000 by 2021. The number of online students (now 60,000) is expected to grow 7 percent every year. Mueller says the university will maintain the proportion of students—70 percent—majoring in STEM and business programs.
“And we will freeze tuition at its current level,” he adds.
The university will continue to concentrate on helping nearby public schools become A-rated based on Arizona Department of Education criteria and on helping the surrounding community’s middle-class roots re-emerge.
“We have success stories from right here in the neighborhood,” he says. “We’re giving kids the opportunity to go to college, something they may never have thought about before.”
Story by Debra Gelbart
Photography by Mark Lipczynski