John G. Sperling

John G. Sperling

John G. Sperling was an educational pioneer, an intellectual, political activist and entrepreneur. In all of these endeavors, he stood up to improve the condition of others and to fight against discrimination of all stripes.

Raised in a log cabin in the Missouri Ozarks by a family of sharecroppers, his own education was limited by poverty, childhood illness, and an untended learning disability, making it difficult for him to read. He escaped from this harsh upbringing by entering into the Merchant Marines where he learned to read during his many hours on board ship. When World War II broke out, he became an airman, which later qualified him for Veteran’s education benefits. This turning point led him onto the path of higher education (securing advanced degrees in history and economic history) and then ultimately to accomplishment, wealth, and pre-eminence, but he never forgot his impoverished roots.


John Sperling first made his mark on the world as a college professor of economic history, teaching students just out of high school. But, circumstances, boredom and intense curiosity led him down another path. At the time, there were no efficient options for men and women in the workforce to complete their college educations and his unique combination of creativity and willingness to ignore academic tradition, led him to build a successful academic model for working adults. His model was first first adopted by other colleges and universities, until he later founded the University of Phoenix, an accredited university designed entirely around the mission of serving the underserved working adult population of America. Himself a product of elite institutions of higher learning (Reed, UC Berkeley, and Kings College Cambridge), his design was to bring higher education to the masses, making it both accessible and affordable to adults whose time and resources were limited. The University of Phoenix at its peak numbered over 600,000 students attending multiple campuses world-wide as well as (later) a highly successful online learning offering.

Despite such success or maybe because of it, Sperling never veered from his desire to help others achieve a higher education. He believed that hard work and perseverance were key to overcoming adversity and finding success. He was instrumental in championing education versus incarceration for non-violent drug offenders, drug law reform, women’s issues, and pioneering science in the health & wellness, energy and environmental fields.

John Sperling died at the age of 93 from a weakened immune system but he remained vibrant to the end. He lived his life with enthusiasm, competitiveness, curiosity and compassion and he inspired many others in the process. The John G. Sperling scholarship is intended to carry his legacy forward by inspiring young women to pursue their passion in the fields of liberal arts and the sciences.