John Sperling, Educator and Entrepreneur

Apparently John Sperling started his entrepreneur career a little later than some, at the age of 55. While some people of his generation were retiring John was just getting started. Who is John Sperling, you ask well today he is a billionaire after a huge IPO. It took 18 years to get that IPO and several hard fought battles against an American tradition which was sorely outdated.

Was his company a high-tech, medical, government defense, or some miracle multilevel marketing company? No, in fact it was the most untraditional company America has ever seen. He has had hate mail, media defamation, and an entire non-profit organization that he spent 12 years building defy and leave him in the cold. California State Government officials taunted him, and his company was eventually kicked him out of the state by the WASC; he was a true under dog in the academic world. So he went to Arizona to start again.

That’s right John Sperling is the founder of the University of Phoenix and the parent company The Apollo Group. Seems kinda strange to think you can buy stock in a university. Let me see I’ll take management 3600, accounting 1050, and 185 shares of Apollo Stock, please.

John grew up in poverty his father hardly ever had a job and he remembers his mother saying almost on a daily basis “We are all going to starve to death.” He claims that poverty forced him to be a hard worker, and further forced him do it for the rest of his life. He may not know this but I do, he chose to be a hard worker, I know several people who grew up in poverty and who have stayed there, and several middle class who have achieved great heights. What I mean to say is that he truly with his whole heart really wanted more than what he had, he had a drive to succeed.

I don’t think he finished high school during the great depression, joined the Merchant Marine where he learned to read and gain a lot of self esteem. He created a awesome work ethic at a young age. He joined the Air Force, went to Reed College, Berkley, and finally King’s College Cambridge, by 1955 he had his Ph.D.

He tends to talk about his life in phases, the first gave him the foundation of his character, and the second phase education gave him the route out of his hard life. The third phase consisted of job or work place “know how” and the fourth was an integration of education and experience.

My favorite thing about John is his tenacity, when people he respected said it would never work he was inspired to seek a second opinion, a third, and a fourth if needed. He was determined to get it done. He had identified a niche that the traditional academic world refused to supply classes to older students when they needed them, and how they needed them. He didn’t make a university degree easier to get, he just simply change the rules of how they were earned.

The first semester offering his brilliant idea at San Jose State he brought in $40,000 in tuition for the school, and can you believe it by the end of the year the company had grossed over $210,297 in tuition; just by expanding to other schools. It was obvious to him and the traditional academic world that there was a high demand for his services. In the second year they grossed $2.8 million a staggering amount for any start up even today in the second year.

John’s biggest battle was won when they earned their accreditation on appeal; no other university had ever done that. They were finally able to open their own doors and really rack in the cash. So wouldn’t capitalism in education be a contradiction? Well yes traditionally speaking it would be. But think about it, academia has gone for centuries unchecked by the business world, always producing half ready employees and subsidized dependant citizens.

He believes that educational institutions need to be held accountable to the student for giving them valuable education and to the business who hire them. He understood that for profit business and our free economy was the only real engine in which a true education could be obtained.

Entrepreneur Characteristics I noticed:

  • Created a business vision
  • Learned all he could about his business and vision
  • Hard working,
  • Tenacity to see the vision through despite criticism and defamation
  • Passion for business vision
  • Leadership, shared his passion, created a great business team
  • Created habits of Innovation, opportunity identification, honesty, and accountability
  • Humility and willingness to listen to customers
  • Desire to be in charge
  • Philanthropy, or giving
  • Enjoys a great challenge

Sources: Future Magazine, spring 2006 &

About the Author:

Bart Gibby’s loves studying entrepreneurs. He currently works as a seo consultant, and blogs on a regular basis. Click to read about others like John Sperling.

2 thoughts on “John Sperling, Educator and Entrepreneur

  1. This article was really refreshing. I\’d heard about the University of Phoenix, but had no idea of its origin. I\’m a grad student at Concordia University in Wisconsin. I just completed a study on Alexander Astin, and can more clearly see how these trail blazers have set out of help students of all walks of life that enter the higher educational playing field. Again thanks for a great article.

  2. Thanks DeBorah! Its a delight to know the time I spent on the article and its infomraiton was useful for you.

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