This story has been altered from the October 2014 print version to make corrections and reflect further reporting. --The Editors.

Grand Canyon University (GCU) was an obscure Phoenix college on the verge of collapse when a fundraising consultant and entrepreneur named Michael Clifford discovered it in the early 2000s.

Founded by Southern Baptists in 1949, by 2003 the school was on the brink of closing and was $16 million in the red. The school cut faculty and staff pay for three years running. Clifford remembers walking around the campus. “It was a disaster. The swimming pool was filled in. No Internet access. And there was no air conditioning in the dorms in Arizona!”

Today GCU is the sole Christian, for-profit college traded on the stock market. It hosts NCAA Division I basketball, is rapidly building out its campus, and is adding majors for its roughly 60,000 students (52,000 online). It has a market capitalization of $2.1 billion.

Growth Surge

Around the same time Clifford and investors were rescuing GCU, Jerry Falwell Sr. and his team at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, were changing their strategy at then-struggling Liberty, which Falwell had founded in 1971.

In 2003-2004, Liberty’s distance education enrollment was growing by more than 20 percent a year to serve nearly 10,000 of the school’s 17,000 students. But few Liberty programs were delivered entirely over the Internet.

A five-year strategic plan for Liberty came out a year later, calling for more money for “experimental” ideas to market the school and recruit students that could supercharge enrollment and growth.

Fast-forward 10 years, and Liberty and GCU are, by enrollment numbers, the largest Christian ...

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