John G. Sperling

John G. Sperling

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

Raised in a log cabin in the Missouri Ozarks by a family of sharecroppers, his father was an alcoholic and his mother a fire-and brimstone Calvinist. His education was limited by poverty, childhood illness, and an untended learning disability, making it difficult for him to read. His escape from this harsh childhood and entry onto the path of higher education, accomplishment, wealth, and pre-eminence make his life even more remarkable.


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 discard academic tradition, led him to build a successful academic model for working adults. His model was 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. By 2016, the University of Phoenix had graduated one million working adults, helping them achieve their higher education goals.

Despite such success or maybe because of it, Sperling never veered from his defense of the underserved or the unpopular causes he believed in. In his lifetime, 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 sepsis and 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.