Brian Mueller: Trying to grow a university to the highest degree

Cap Times Q&A

What began as interview with Grand Canyon University President Brian Mueller about GCU’s tuition fee freeze, now on its 10th consecutive year, quickly spawned into a free-wheeling discussion about how Americans are rethinking the value of a college degree, and how GCU is positioning itself amid this re-evaluation of higher education.

The way Mueller puts it, traditional universities were built around serving students who are fresh out of high school and want a four-year college degree. But after the Vietnam War, a whole enterprise arose to cater to the educational needs of a much older population, who already have careers and are raising families. Then the last economic recession changed everything – state universities saw their state support decline, while private universities watched their endowment drop. And while Ivy League schools didn’t really need to change their model, mid-tier schools had to rethink their approach, and many began aggressively going after the older population.

Brian Mueller
Brian Mueller

And GCU has done a pretty good job of adopting some of those strategies.

Well, that was our key. We came here in 2008. Grand Canyon was a private, traditional Christian university, with a decent brand for those who knew it, but it was pretty nondescript in a lot of ways. But we had spent 22 years in Apollo Group, really knew about this other market, built a huge infrastructure to address it, and we believed if we came here and got access to capital through the public markets, that we would be the first to create this hybrid model and build a traditional university brand using public market dollars to do it. … Our bet simply was that we could create a hybrid university, and that we could have a large presence of traditional students, a large presence of nontraditional students, and those two student bodies – basically separate student bodies in a lot of ways because they have different needs – leveraging a common infrastructure that would create huge efficiencies.

I’m supposing the strategy is to grow big.

If you’re going to do something like this, what we have learned in the last 30 years is that always the key is the highest quality student bodies on both sides of it. And so we don’t do remediation at Grand Canyon. We need college-ready students on both sides of it. We want them to graduate in three to four years. On this side of it, we control the quality by the programs that we offer. Seventy percent of our students on this side of it are in master’s and doctoral programs, and the quality of those students and their likelihood to finish and complete is much higher. And the answer to your question is yes. We have now 19,000 ground students, which we will grow to 30,000. We have 70,000 working adult students online, which we will grow to 100,000. The reality is today we could grow faster, but we’re not going to. We are going to build very, very strong student bodies with good graduation rates, and low default rates on student loans.

What’s the rationale for the tuition fee freeze and how are you paying for it?

Private university education is something that is primarily for the upper-middle classes and upper classes. We wanted to create a financial model that would make this affordable for all socio-economic classes of Americans. That was the goal. The key driver behind doing that is that Number One, we need to have sizable good student bodies on both sides. Every university has the infrastructure we have – a president, a provost, deans, colleges, financial aid department, accounting department, marketing department technology. We apply that across the 19,000 students on the campus and also across the 70,000 students online. That’s where all the efficiency is. We’re two thirds under what most private universities are, and we’re very equivalent to state universities that are subsidized. The second big part of this is we absolutely run this as a business. Number One, we don’t outsource. You see a lot of universities outsource their residence halls, outsource their online learning, outsource their food, outsource their parking garages. We’re not giving that away. We keep that internal, and therefore we keep the profits internal, which help us not to raise tuition. Secondly, we’re spinning other businesses off of this core one, which are profitable, and as those revenue streams grow, it again helps us not to raise tuition.

At the end of the day, you’re competing with state universities. They have a little bit of advantage (because) they get funding from the state. One of the things the state has done is to say we’re going to provide effectively free tuition to students who want to be teachers. How do you compete with something like that?

It’s very difficult to compete with something that’s free. But remember, it’s not free. It’s being subsidized by other programs.

But for a family or a student, it is effectively free, as long as you meet the requirements and you do teach after.

And so Number One, anything the state does or anything the state universities do to produce more teachers, God bless them. It’s a crisis. It’s an absolute crisis in this country in terms of the lack of teachers and we’re trying to get to the bottom of why this millennial generation with all of their willingness to sacrifice and give and be part of causes… for some reason, kids don’t want to go into teaching today. So, we’ve got to figure out what that is.

Part of that is we’re not paying them enough.

It is, but I push back on people when they say that. I think we lost this semester something like 1,000 teachers in the public school system, walked off the job. Now they knew what the salary was before they started. So, it wasn’t the salary. Something else about the condition of teaching is causing people not to want to go into it… God bless the state universities for doing this or the state for putting money toward it because it’s very important. Can you scale that to the extent necessary to meet the demands that exist? I don’t know. We’ll see. We have the largest teacher ed program in the state, locally, and I believe we’re the largest teacher ed program in the country, when you think about our ground and our online programs.

It’s been a goal for GCU to become a nonprofit again. You worked pretty hard, were rejected. Is that still a goal? Is that still something you would want to work on?

Yes, we haven’t publicly stated at this point that we’re going to do it, but everybody is asking about it, and we’re saying there is a strong likelihood that we will do it and we’re taking steps in that direction.

Charter schools move Arizona forward, but more can be done


Arizona’s charter schools are indeed a success story for our state. Our leaders should be applauded for having the vision to carefully create a climate in which school choice benefits so many through specialized learning, improved test scores, and education options.

As the curriculum director of Benjamin Franklin Charter School, I take pride in the role our school has played in educating Arizona’s children for the past 24 years. We now serve 3,000 students, and we have a 96 percent graduation rate. Our test scores are well above the state average. Great effort is taken to provide a quality education to our students, and Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, is heavily involved in that endeavor.

Shalisa Arnold
Shalisa Arnold

For these reasons and more, I must strongly object to the recent series of articles and editorials The Arizona Republic has launched assailing charter schools, school choice, and the integrity of our school’s president and founder, Mr. Farnsworth. I have worked with Mr. Farnsworth for 20 years and can personally attest to his commitment to education.

The Republic accuses him of benefiting from his dual role as a lawmaker and charter school operator, ignoring the fact that the enabling legislation for charter schools was passed in 1994, years before Mr. Farnsworth took office. In fact, he has cast votes against charter schools during his tenure.

The 1994 original legislation created a new, competitive education model by authorizing the state to contract with private companies (both for-profit and nonprofit) to provide public education services. Benjamin Franklin was originally founded as for-profit, but changes in the market make a better case to become a nonprofit.  About 95 percent of the charter schools are. Grand Canyon University is making this change, too.

This transition is in the best interest of our schools. It alleviates property tax and income tax burdens, as is the case for other charter and district schools. Nonprofit status provides lower financing costs for future buildings. It also creates a new independent board of directors.

The Republic took issue because these new board members are among Mr. Farnsworth’s circle of friends. These are ethical, experienced, and committed individuals. One of the board members not only has business experience but is also a long-time BFCS parent. Another has worked in government. While still another is the best procurement lawyer in the state. Additionally, the school is also exploring the option of expanding its membership with individuals from the business or education worlds.

The Republic also took issue with the fact that Mr. Farnsworth is making a profit during this transition, but the $30 million figure is outrageously inflated, and the true number will not be known until additional appraisals and costs are factored in. The Republic failed to note that for nearly 20 years, Mr. Farnsworth was personally guaranteeing loans and leases because we did not have the taxpayers to fall back on as district schools do.  However, the school will be making a profit just as the suppliers of buses, curriculum, books, and contractors of buildings do with public schools.

The Republic wrote that taxpayers will effectively have paid twice for our schools after the nonprofit transition. Actually, they did not even pay once! The state does not allow charters to ask taxpayers to pay for buildings. The buildings were purchased through private sector financing, and the taxpayers have no liability for the debt associated with them. Thankfully, Mr. Farnsworth was willing to assume that risk. Had he not, countless students would have missed out on the unique, quality education Benjamin Franklin provides.

Our transfer to a nonprofit is being done legally, transparently, responsibly, and with an eye to the future to ensure we have the right approach that continues to yield AzMERIT test scores exceeding the state average. In fact, our students test about 20 percentage points higher on average.

This is not to say there is not room for improvements in the way our state does business not only for  charter operators who legally make profits from contracts with  Arizona, but also for any private sector business contracting with the state for things such as freeways, higher education, or health care. There have been numerous abuses in the K-12 education arena such as those in Scottsdale and Higley.

Because so much concern has been expressed regarding charter school operators legally making a profit from contracts with the state, Mr. Farnsworth said he is willing to join with anyone, including state leaders and friends from both sides of the aisle in January, for a comprehensive look and potential legislation, retaining laws and practices that work and reforming where we must.  We welcome potential reform in all areas of state procurement.

Shalisa Arnold is the curriculum director of Benjamin Franklin Charter School.


The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.

Douglas proposes Christian-based academic standards

State schools chief Diane Douglas and Lucas Narducci, president of the state Board of Education, chat ahead of the Sept. 24, 2018, board meeting to discuss revamping science and social studies standards. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)
State schools chief Diane Douglas and Lucas Narducci, president of the state Board of Education, chat ahead of the Sept. 24, 2018, board meeting to discuss revamping science and social studies standards. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

A parade of teachers, parents and others lined up Monday to ask the state Board of Education to reject efforts by the state schools chief to alter — and they believe dilute — academic standards.

During a meeting lasting hours, several people testified that Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas is seeking to undermine the science standards crafted by a group of teachers. They specifically took aim at what were last-minute changes she and her staff made in language dealing with climate change and changes in references to evolution.

But they also told board members they should ignore a bid by Douglas to adopt charter school standards crafted by Hillsdale College, a private Christian school, for all public schools in the state.

“Those are standards coming from a politically conservative, religiously conservative school with a Euro-centric sort of base to the world,” said Karen McClelland, a member of the Sedona-Oak Creek school board. “We need our students to have equal emphasis on the rest of the world.”

The board took no action, deferring any final vote for at least a month.

Hillsdale, in promoting charter schools based on these standards, say they will “train the minds of and improve the hearts of young people through a rigorous, classical education in the liberal arts and sciences, with instruction in the principles of moral character and civil virtue.”

But the standards themselves have a religious bent.

For example, the standards for sixth grade history include references to what the college calls “basic ideas in common,” including “the nature of God and humanity” and the Old Testament. The standards also say students should learn the “important stories” of creation, the Tower of Babel, and The Ten Commandments.

The New Testament is not ignored, with lessons including the Nativity, the baptism of Jesus, walking on water, and the Resurrection.

Douglas called what Hillsdale created the “gold standard for K-12 academics.” She also said it’s exactly what’s needed to deal with what she said has been a series of failures in Arizona education to actually educate students and not, in her words, simply make them “worker bees.”

“We’ve stopped caring about making kids citizens and giving them the knowledge they need to be successful as citizens in this country,” she told Capitol Media Services.

“It’s become all about what’s your career going to be,” Douglas continued, saying the citizenship part of it has been neglected to say, “we’ll just job train you enough to get you a job.”

By while Douglas’ focus on the Hillsdale standards are based on an increased focus on history and citizenship, her attempt to have them adopted is linked to her fight over the science standards.

More than 100 people took part in crafting the new science standards which have not been upgraded in 15 years. But in a series of back-and-forths with Douglas’ Department of Education, some things were altered.

Some of those changes occurred in the last few months after Douglas appointed Joseph Kezele, a biology teacher at Arizona Christian University and president of the Arizona Origin Science Association to the review panel.

Kezele did not testify Monday. But he told Phoenix New Times reporter Joseph Flaherty that the earth is only 6,000 years old and that there was “plenty of space on (Noah’s) Ark for dinosaurs.”

Douglas, a member of the board, sat silently while science teachers from across the state urged the board to rescind those last-minute changes.

Sara Torres, executive director of the Arizona Science Teachers Association, said returning the standards to what was first proposed “will ensure that teachers of science are not put in the position of teaching non-scientific ideas.”

It’s not just a question of whether the teaching of evolution is being undermined.

Eileen Merritt, who is a teacher at the Arizona State University College of Education, said there are some very specific examples of what was removed, she believes improperly.

One would require students to “analyze geoscience data and the results from global climate change models to make evidence-based predictions of the current rate and scale of global or regional climate changes.”

“Also removed, the idea that science and engineering will be essential both to understanding the possible impacts of global climate change, into informing decisions on how to slow its rate and consequences for humanity and for the rest of the planet,” Merritt said.

Douglas, for her part, suggested she was happy with those last-minute changes. But she also told board members that if they’re unwilling to adopt the standards in the form she presented them, then they should scrap all of that — and the years of work that went into them — and simply adopt the entire Hillsdale-created standards.

That suggestion annoyed Tara Guerrero, curriculum coordinator at the Crane Elementary School District.

“It is both disheartening and demoralizing to hear that this body of work that Arizona educators have committed to may be dismissed by the adoption of a single school district’s curriculum,” she said.

Douglas and her bid to adopt the Hillsdale standards had some supporters, including Bob Branch who teaches at Grand Canyon University, a local Christian college. Branch recently ran against Douglas in the Republican primary for state school superintendent; both lost to Frank Riggs.

And Corrine Haynes, who described herself as a mother, grandmother and retired teacher, said Arizona students need what Hillsdale created.

“It has become alarmingly evident that we are a nation without its sense of history,” she testified. “What unites us as Americans has been under attack for decades in our educational system for decades and we are now experiencing the consequences.”

Not all of the objections to both the Douglas-altered science standards and adoption of the Hillsdale plan came from the academic community.

The Rev. David Felten, pastor at The Fountains United Methodist Church in Fountain Hills, urged the board to construct a strict line between education and religion. And even if they choose not to, Felter said it would be a mistake to believe that what’s in the Bible actually supports the idea of “creation.”

“We believe that evolution is something that needs to be promoted, that it is not, in fact, in conflict with the Bible,” he said of Methodist beliefs. And he took a shot at those who would put creationism or the modified form of “intelligent design” into science standards.

“This board is about to take the advice of people who believe the earth was created in six days and the earth is only 6,000 years old,” he said.

Grand Canyon U. launches partnership to help needy

Heart in the Hand Icon - Red Button on Black Computer Keyboard.

I get excited about a lot of things that are happening at Grand Canyon University, but I don’t think I’ve ever been as excited as I am about the potential of our new partnership with CityServe.

CityServe is an amazing ministry that aligns perfectly with GCU’s mission and is having a significant impact on underserved people who are struggling. In just the past year, their collaborative network of faith-based partnerships has provided $420 million worth of household goods to families in need across the U.S., and we are thrilled to become the first university to serve as a distribution hub for CityServe.

Through a new 35,000-square-foot warehouse on campus, GCU will partner with CityServe to distribute thousands of household goods to families across Arizona. CityServe receives donations as well as surplus supplies from businesses such as Amazon, Costco, The Home Depot, Lowe’s and other large retailers. Items such as food, clothing, heaters, fans, blankets, mattresses, car seats, cribs, furniture – essential things that many of us take for granted – will be provided to families in need.

Those families will be identified by GCU’s network of partners such as schools, churches and social service organizations that will serve as points of distribution, or PODs, and connect the goods to those who need them most. We have already identified 40 PODs and expect to exceed 100 quickly once word gets out about this partnership. Our hope is that we quickly outgrow the 35,000-square-foot warehouse, which is a good problem to have because it means we are impacting more people.

We became involved with CityServe in December when the university began providing food boxes from Shamrock Farms to organizations in Phoenix through the Farmers to Families program. To date, more than 18,000 boxes of food have been distributed through GCU. That partnership will now be extended through the creation of the GCU hub and warehouse to distribute other types of goods to those needing assistance, which will be Phase 1 of the CityServe partnership.

Phase 2 is even more exciting.

Once we get to know some of the families we are helping, we want to go beyond providing food, clothing and household goods. Those things are extremely important because they provide much-needed relief and comfort, but we want to find ways to provide long-term assistance to those families and put them on a path toward prosperity.

To do that, all nine of our colleges are identifying ways they can create opportunities that incorporate project-oriented work with our students that becomes part of their curriculum. For example, our College of Nursing and Health Care Professions is exploring opportunities to host a health clinic to assist families. The College of Humanities and Social Sciences is looking at opportunities to provide behavioral health and addiction counseling – something it is already doing through a partnership at nearby Alhambra High School, where our senior-level counseling students provide psychological support services and mentoring to high school students. Our College of Education is already providing tutoring opportunities for K-12 students in our community. And our Colangelo College of Business is identifying ways to assist families with basics of money management and to help those who own small businesses by advising them in areas such as accounting, marketing, creating a business plan or accessing capital. The Business College already does this through its New Business Development Center, which has helped 300 family businesses, and our work with CityServe will expand that even further.

A college education is not just about acquiring knowledge and the intellectual capacity in your chosen field. It’s about using that knowledge to make a difference in the world. CityServe is one more great opportunity for our students to combine their knowledge and their passion to serve others in ways that will have a transformational impact on our community.

Brian Mueller is president of Grand Canyon University.

Grand Canyon University gains non-profit status


After 14 years as a for-profit university, Grand Canyon University turned back the clock and reverted back to its non-profit status as of today.

The move forces GCU to create two different entities to govern its for-profit and nonprofit parts. GCU President Brian Mueller will lead both boards and serve as CEO of the corporate arm, Grand Canyon Education, and continue as president of Grand Canyon University.

GCU was founded in 1949 where it began its history as a nonprofit private Christian university in the forest near Prescott. The college moved to west Phoenix just two years later.

“2004 was an important date because the University was in big trouble: $20 million in debt and really close to going under, 900 students on the campus, and all kinds of challenges – literally within days of closing,” Mueller said in a press conference Monday.

In those final days, a private capital investment group from Portland, Endeavour Capital, saved GCU from bankruptcy, and in 2008, GCU became a publicly traded organization where it received even more investment from people and organizations.

Student population and investment grew rapidly. The university now has 21,000 on campus and another 70,000 students, mostly adults getting graduate degrees, take online classes, Mueller said. This includes a $1 billion of investment into residence halls and classrooms.

The university bought $875 million in assets from the investors of its for-profit sister, GCE, for a few reasons.

“Research is an important part of a university and we weren’t allowed to apply for a lot of the grants that underwrite research projects, so our faculty and students were at a significant disadvantage from that perspective,” said Mueller.

Such grants are part of the reason why Arizona State University and University of Arizona have such advanced engineering and medical programs. Non-profit status will aid GCU’s nursing program for research projects and other science programs.

Two other reasons that Mueller noted are to create a large development office to help other universities use their model to grow, and they want to shed the publicly perceived bad reputation of being a for-profit university.

The development office will offer services to other higher education institutions, a common practice that many colleges from Georgetown to North Carolina and University of Southern California and ASU use.

The move to a non-profit university will be easy because “as a for-profit institution we operated mainly as a not-for-profit,” said Mueller. “We invested every dollar of profit back in to improve education infrastructure.”

GCU has not raised tuition for the past decade.

Mueller does not fear going bankrupt again and has a plan in place if things go wrong. GCU can sell parts of the $875 million in assets and lease it back to GCE if needed, and lack of enrollment – the root cause of the near bankruptcy in 2004 – is not even a thought.

“As long as we can keep it so everybody wins, we’re going to do our best to do that.”


Low-income tenants lack options as old mobile home parks are razed

Alondra Ruiz Vazquez and her husband were comfortable in Periwinkle Mobile Home Park for a decade, feeling lucky to own their mobile home and pay about $450 a month for their lot in a city with spiraling rents.

But now they and dozens of other families have until May 28 to leave the Phoenix park, which nearby Grand Canyon University purchased seven years ago to build student housing. Two other mobile home communities are also being cleared this spring for new developments in a city where no new parks have been built in more than 30 years.

“I’m here, well, because I have nowhere to go,” said Isabel Ramos, who lives at Periwinkle with her 11-year-old daughter. “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

The razing of older mobile home parks across the United States worries advocates who say bulldozing them permanently eliminates some of the already limited housing for the poorest of the poor. Residents may have to double up with relatives or live in their cars amid spiking evictions and homelessness, they warn.

“Mobile homes are a much bigger part of our affordable housing stock than people know,” said Mark Stapp, who directs Arizona State University’s master’s degree program in real estate development. “Once it’s gone, a lot of people will have no place to go.”

A recent survey by the National Low Income Housing Coalition showed a U.S.-wide shortage of 7.3 million affordable rental homes for extremely low-income renters, defined in Arizona as a three-member household making $28,850 or less.

Industry groups estimate that more than 20 million people live in some 43,000 mobile home parks across the United States.

“We are in the deepest affordable housing crisis we’ve ever experienced,” said Joanna Carr, acting head of the Arizona Housing Coalition. “Housing for many people is getting completely out of reach. It’s very dire.”
Ken Anderson, president of the Manufactured Housing Industry of Arizona, said trying to bring an old park up to modern standards can be cost-prohibitive for owners, requiring replacement of electrical and sewage infrastructure for newer homes.

At least six such communities have been torn down in Arizona in the last 18 months, he said, adding that Grand Canyon University “bent over backwards” to help residents more than other park owners.
“A lot of these parks are 70 years old,” said Anderson, noting an uptick in demolitions of older communities for redevelopment. “It’s going to be a big problem down the line.”

Efforts under way to revitalize old mobile homes have limits. Despite their name, most aren’t truly mobile, and moving them can be very costly. The oldest homes are often too decrepit to move at all.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development recently announced $225 million in grants to governments, tribes and nonprofits to preserve mobile homes, but the money can only be used to replace, not repair dwellings built before 1976, which are common at older parks.

Vermont earlier this year announced a mobile home improvement program to be funded by $4 million in federal money. It aims to help park owners prepare vacant or abandoned lots for new mobile homes, and help mobile homeowners install new foundations and make their dwellings more habitable.

In Riverdale, Utah, the last of about 50 families at Lesley’s Mobile Home Park must leave by the end of May for construction of new apartments and townhouses.

“The state laws don’t protect us,” said Jason Williams, who sold his mobile home for half what he asked for and will now live in a motorhome.

Children play outside their homes at the Periwinkle Mobile Home Park, Thursday, April 11, 2023, in Phoenix. Residents of the park are facing an eviction deadline of May 28 due to a private university’s plan to redevelop the land for student housing. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Some old parks weren’t originally envisioned as permanent housing.

Florida City Campsite and RV Camp was built decades ago for vacationers headed to the Florida Keys or the Everglades.

But the dilapidated park eventually became home to retirees on fixed incomes and young families on government assistance. Florida City, the southernmost municipality in Miami-Dade County, sold it two years ago for a new townhouse project.

Cities often don’t like older parks because unlike other housing they don’t generate property taxes for municipal services. Rundown parks can also be eyesores, depressing the worth of nearby properties even as the value of the land the mobile homes sit on has increased exponentially.

In Phoenix, Grand Canyon University said in a statement it “waited as long as it could” to build new student housing after buying Periwinkle in 2016. “Now, with the need to expand, the University has raised funds to provide multiple layers of assistance to tenants at Periwinkle.”

The university said it initially gave residents six months to leave, then extended the deadline to 13 months. It offered free rent for the first five months of this year, early departure compensation, relocation assistance and some household goods.

Many park residents are Spanish-speaking immigrants earning minimum wage as landscapers or restaurant workers. There are also retirees living on Social Security.

“We haven’t found anything under $1,800. That’s way above what we can afford,” Ruiz Vazquez said of apartment rents. She said the couple’s mobile home is too old to move and must be abandoned.
“It’s really taken a toll on our health, mental state of mind.”

Maricopa County has a housing shortfall of more than 74,000 units. Zillow.com currently lists the median monthly rental price for all bedrooms and property types in Phoenix at $2,095.

More than 20 families have moved out of Periwinkle in recent months, leaving behind weed-strewn lots. The rusting hulks of several mobile dwellings with rotting wooden stairs were left behind.

Residents wanted an additional 18-month eviction moratorium or a zoning change to stave off their departure indefinitely.

The Phoenix City Council this spring decided to let the eviction proceed but set aside $2.5 million in federal funds for the housing nonprofit Trellis to assist Periwinkle and other mobile home park residents facing eviction.
Trellis CEO Mark Trailor, who once headed the Arizona Department of Housing, said the nonprofit is working to help Periwinkle families find apartments and arrange to move mobile homes that can be moved.
Still, Phoenix activist Salvador Reza said most families face uncertain futures.
“Some of them might move in with another family, with an uncle or aunt,” said Reza. “Some might go out into the streets and become part of the homeless.”

A new law in Arizona recently increased state funds for owners forced to move their mobile homes because of redevelopment to $12,500 for a single-section dwelling and $20,000 for a multi-section.
Those who must abandon their home because of precarious condition can now get $5,000 for a single-section home and up to $8,000 for a multi-section.

Periwinkle resident Graciela Beltran said it’s not enough.

“They want my house?” she asked, her voice cracking. “Give me a house that is equal to mine. I am not asking for anything more.”