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John Sperling, University of Phoenix founder, dies

PHOENIX (AP) — John G. Sperling, who overcame learning problems early in life and went on to found the for-profit University of Phoenix, has died, company officials said Sunday. He was 93.

John G. Sperling
John G. Sperling (University of Phoenix)

Mark Brenner, chief of staff of the Apollo Education Group, the parent company of the University of Phoenix, said Sperling died Friday at a hospital near San Francisco. He did not provide a cause of death.

Sperling started the chain in the 1970s and campuses were established around the country as it became a major company and leader in adult education and online classes.

He stepped down two years ago as executive chairman of its parent company.

Detail provided by Apollo said Sperling left high school a virtual illiterate but learned to read in the Merchant Marine. After serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps, he began an educational journey that led to his receiving a doctorate in 1955.

“Dr. Sperling’s indomitable ideas and life’s work served as a catalyst for innovations widely accepted as having made higher education more accessible to adult students,” his son, current Chairman Peter Sperling, and Chief Executive Officer Greg Cappelli said in a statement on the Apollo website.

The company said that Sperling’s school introduced the idea of local satellite campuses in more than 30 states, deliberately positioning them near freeways and major intersections to help adults pursuing their degrees after work.

Apollo said in July that the U.S. Department of Education was reviewing the administration of federal student financial aid programs by the university for the past two years. The university has about 242,000 students. Enrollments at for-profit education companies boomed during the recession, but demand is sliding and government scrutiny of the industry has intensified.

The Arizona Republic said Sperling’s schools often catered to older students wanting classes at more flexible hours. By tapping a demographic niche that traditional schools missed or didn’t want, Sperling elbowed the University of Phoenix into a lasting place in the world of higher education.

“University of Phoenix is my proudest legacy,” Sperling said in a 2011 interview with The Republic. “Knowing that over 1 million staff, faculty and students have benefited in some way from the university is something I’m very proud of.”

The paper called Sperling a billionaire whose philanthropy supported a variety of causes.

He is survived by his long-time companion Joan Hawthorne, his former wife Virginia Sperling, and his son Peter, daughter-in-law Stephanie and two grandchildren.

(© 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed)

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