By Richard McGill Murphy, contributor
FORTUNE -- Founded in 1949 as a Southern Baptist college, Grand Canyon University was insolvent and ready for the educational scrap heap by 2004, when a group of investors bought the school and converted it to a for-profit institution. Today Grand Canyon (LOPE) is the country's only for-profit Christian university. Publicly traded and profitable, the school boasts 6,500 students at its well-appointed campus in Phoenix, plus another 45,000 distance learners who live all over the country. Core programs include nursing, health sciences, and education. Compared with other for-profit schools, Grand Canyon stands out for its Christian affiliation and strong campus presence, according to Piper Jaffray analyst Peter Appert. Recently Grand Canyon became the first for-profit university to achieve Division I athletic status.
Reward/risk: The for-profit education sector has suffered from declining enrollment for the past several years, partly because of its reputation for aggressive sales tactics, pricey tuition, and poor educational outcomes. Meanwhile, traditional nonprofit schools have started muscling into the for-profit sector's core market of working adults. "In every market now there's a local school offering online, night, and weekend courses," says Jeff Silber, managing director at BMO Capital Markets. Despite those challenges, Grand Canyon has thrived by offering value for money: average tuition is about $7,800 a year after scholarships, competitive with state institutions like the University of Arizona. Unlike bigger competitors like Strayer Education (STRA) and the University of Phoenix (APOL), which operate national online and campus-based education networks, Grand Canyon attracts campus students mainly from the Southwest and makes a point of integrating online students into campus life whenever possible. "Our distance learners show up at basketball games and bring their kids along," says Grand Canyon CEO Brian Mueller.
This story is from the December 24, 2012 issue of Fortune.
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