Three times a week almost 13,000 students at Liberty University assemble for an hour of singing and speeches, evoking the spirit of a revival meeting that also attracts Republican politicians and Christian celebrities such as New York Jets quarterback Tim Tebow.
The collegians make up just 14 percent of the student body. The Lynchburg, Virginia-based school founded by Baptist minister Jerry Falwell in 1971 has an additional 82,500 online students, more than twice as many as three years ago, making Liberty the largest, private nonprofit university in the U.S.
“When I look at those numbers it still boggles my mind,” said Jerry Falwell Jr., a soft-spoken lawyer who took over the institution after his father died in 2007.
Nonprofit private and state schools alike are discovering what for-profit colleges such as Apollo Group Inc. (APOL)’s University of Phoenix and Washington Post Co. (WPO)’s Kaplan University figured out more than a decade ago. Faced with a swelling number of overleveraged student borrowers, cuts in public subsidies and paltry endowment investment returns, they are embracing the Internet as a viable alternative to educating students.