The IPO was a success. GCU initially raised $254 million. One hundred million of it immediately went into building out the online systems. From 2008 to 2010, the main focus was establishing the online university, which provided the financial foundation to invest in the campus. Starting in 2011, the focus shifted to the traditional ground university. Over the past decade, $1.6 billion has been invested in the physical campus. Today, Grand Canyon University has 90,000 online students and nearly 24,000 students in-person on their Phoenix campus. The average GCU student pays much less in tuition than those at other private universities and about the same as those at Arizona’s state universities while taking on less student debt. The “what if” has come true; how is God using it?
How Can God Use These Technology Waves?
As a Christian university, Grand Canyon is intentionally committed to living out Christian faith within the context of a missional community, “strategically united in carrying out a mission that centers on following Jesus Christ in word and in deed, and in sharing the love of Christ generously to all who participate in the life of the community.” This works itself out in at least two important ways.
First, the university focuses on the importance of right doctrine and its “Integration of Faith, Learning and Work” initiative has deeply ingrained the Christian worldview and biblical principles into the curriculum of all academic programs, not just on campus, but also online. In surveys, nearly 80% of campus-based students and nearly 75% of online students say their faith has grown while at GCU. While only 83% of online students identify as Christian, 87% have a positive perception of the university’s faith integration.
Second, the university also focuses on “right living” — tangibly loving its neighbors. The school is located in what had become one of the worst parts of Phoenix, with high unemployment, low income, high crime, poor living conditions, and little hope. Of families living in the neighborhood, 90% are below the poverty line and 80% are people of color. In 2011, instead of investing in the current campus, GCU could’ve easily moved to a nicer location. But they instead chose to find ways to live out their Christian faith in loving their neighbors. In 2015, the university formalized a five-point plan to deliver both help and hope to their local community:
- Jobs: The university directly and indirectly employs over 14,000 people on campus, and has launched 10 new businesses near campus that provide another 500 jobs. Many of these positions are filled by workers from the local community. Children of university employees receive free tuition to GCU, providing an even stronger long-term lever for their families to escape poverty.
- Safety: The area around campus previously had the worst crime rate in the city. Now, eight years into an 11-year partnership with the Phoenix police department, crime is down 19.8% (compared to a 1% decline across the entire city).
- Homes: The university has partnered with Habitat for Humanity for Habitat’s largest coordinated home renovation program in the world. To date, over 300 homes have been renovated, with an end-goal of providing 800 safe and affordable homes to local families. As a result, home values in the surrounding zip code have increased 572% since 2011.
- Education: Twelve-hundred of GCU’s best and brightest students serve as tutors for nearly 5,000 neighborhood K-12 kids. Tutoring is available every weekday 3–8pm. Tutoring continues on weekends when English-as-a-Second-Language classes are also available for parents. Funds have also been raised to provide $4 million in scholarships for kids in the tutoring program. Currently 329 students are on full scholarships and 100 neighborhood students have graduated with degrees in computer science, mechanical engineering, nursing, and other high demand fields.
- Physical Needs: The university has partnered with the CityServe network to open a 35,000 square foot warehouse on the Grand Canyon campus. Furniture, appliance, and other durable goods donated by retailers including Costco, Amazon, and Home Depot are distributed from the warehouse to needy families in the neighborhood, throughout the city, and across Arizona.
A Technology Journey
The first University of Phoenix online system was very firmly planted in the PC era, with 24 modems connected to a bulletin board system (BBS). The core mechanics of a BBS, with nesting of discussion threads within message boards, fit well with the learning model at the university, encouraging ongoing engagement and dialog. But the architecture couldn’t scale beyond a total of 3,000 students, with no more than 24 connected at any given time.
When Mueller brought on Joe Mildenhall in 1998, he gave him 90 days to build a new system capable of supporting 20,000 students. Joe turned to the emerging Internet. Although students continued to dial-in to the system, those connections were through their local Internet Service Providers (ISPs), not modems at the university. As the Internet continued to mature, and as more students migrated to broadband, the system continued to evolve to support more learning use-cases and richer content (audio and video).
By the time the team moved to Grand Canyon University, students were beginning to ride the technology waves of smartphones and social networks. As soon as phones had web browsers, students were using them to access the system. As the team began building the new system for GCU, they accounted for the different form factors of student devices. Some uses (e.g. engaging in online discussions) work well on a mobile device. Some uses (e.g. writing long papers) don’t.