Denny Sanford makes historic $350 million gift to expand, invigorate National University – The San Diego Union-Tribune

Posted: October 12, 2019 at 10:45 am


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Philanthropist Denny Sanford made one of the largest gifts in the history of higher education Tuesday, giving $350 million to San Diegos National University to transform the school into a dominant force among institutions that cater to working adults, especially online.

The nearly half-century old university helped pioneer online education and specializes in serving older learners, many who study digitally and at small campuses. But some of Nationals degree programs have received low rankings from U.S. News and World Report.

The school which will be renamed Sanford National University next year is trying to fix the problem and break out of the shadow of competitors who are growing by investing in digital technology, lower-priced classes and compelling marketing.

National, which has about 28,000 students, hopes to at least double (in size) within a few years. How could I not support that?, said Sanford, an 83-year-old billionaire who divides his time between homes in La Jolla and Sioux Falls, S.D.

Adult learners are so in need in education, and theyre often neglected.

National hopes to bolster enrollment, in part, by reducing its annual tuition from $12,000 to $15,000 for full-time students, down to the $7,000 to $10,000 range over time something that will only be possible with Sanfords new gift. About 70-percent of its students take classes online.

The school also will try to triple the size of its annual graduating class to roughly 15,000 over the next three to five years.

We know that affordability and student success are the primary areas we want to focus on, said David Andrews, Nationals president. We have military students that cap out at four courses a year with assistance funding they get from the federal government. We want to cover the rest of their four courses that year.

Well endow, or invest, a good bit of this (gift) to throw off enough return to truly reduce the cost of tuition. Our aspiration is to cut our tuition in half.

Sanford who has a long record of donating to education, health, science and the welfare of children announced his latest gift on Tuesday during a ceremony that attracted some of the countys most influential figures, including philanthropists Irwin Jacobs and Malin Burnham.

The $350 million is the largest individual or family donation ever made in San Diego County, breaking the old record by $75 million. According to its 2016 IRS forms 990, National University had a budget of about $745 million.

The new gift raises Sanfords total public giving in the county to at least $809 million, and it comes less than three months after he donated $100 million to UC San Diego for the study of empathy and compassion.

The $350 million is among the 15 largest donations that have been publicly announced by U.S. colleges and universities since 1967, according to data in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

You dont see institutions (like National) getting nine figure gifts, let alone beyond $100 million, said Maria Di Mento, a donations expert at the Chronicle of Philanthropy in Washington D.C.

The biggest donations have gone to more traditional universities that have expanded into online adult education, creating additional competition for hybrid systems like National, which delivers courses digitally and at about 20 campuses, most which are in California.

National has benefited from a friendship that evolved over the past six years between Sanford and Michael Cunningham, the chancellor of the National University System, which is composed of National and three other small universities.

Sanford, Cunningham and others developed a global education program called Sanford Harmony, which teaches Pre-K to sixth-grade students to treat each other with civility and compassion. Sanford has regularly said that education and children are my biggest priority.

National also helped Sanford develop Sanford Inspire, which improves the skills of school teachers. And the university created the Sanford Institute of Philanthropy, which helps non-profits and their fundraisers to be more effective.

Sanford donated $150 million to these and related programs prior to announcing Tuesdays record $350 million gift, which is unrestricted, giving National the flexibility to invest in many educational initiatives.

Theres no mistaking the schools gratitude. Cunningham keeps a full-size cardboard cutout photo of Sanford in his office.

The new donation raises Sanfords global giving to at least $1.3 billion. Forbes estimates his fortune at $2.6 billion and Sanford said he plans to give away all of his money by the time he dies..

Denny has had such an impact, not only on National University and the system but society at large, Cunningham told the Union-Tribune.

But the path ahead wont be easy. Universities that focus on older, working adults are still trying to prove their worth.

More than a decade after Congress allowed online colleges full access to federal student aid programs, and despite a subsequent explosion in their enrollment, a growing and powerful body of evidence suggests that online learning is far from the hoped-for silver bullet, according to a study released in January by George Mason University and Skidmore College.

Online education has failed to reduce costs and improve outcomes for students. Faculty, academic leaders, the public, and employers continue to perceive online degrees less favorably than traditional degrees.

Cunningham agrees that the courses offered by schools like National have to be more affordable and sharply focused on giving students the skills they need to thrive in the work place.

Sanford has faith in Nationals ability to evolve, saying that the school has proven itself to me over a six-, seven-year period of time, not only with the programs I brought to them but the programs they have developed, which have been very, very successful, particularly those for adult learners.

National has expressed deep gratitude to Sanford, who has lived a rags-to-riches life, building a fortune in the financial services industry, largely by serving customers with bad credit.

He was born in St. Paul, Minn. during the Great Depression to a family that had little money. His mother died of cancer when he was only four. His father operated a clothing warehouse, and put Sanford to work at age eight.

He emerged from a troubled childhood to earn a degree in psychology at the University of Minnesota. Sanford then pursued work as a salesman and eventually earned enough money to buy a bank in South Dakota. He renamed the bank First Premier and was soon lending money to customers who found it hard or impossible to qualify for credit at other banks.

Sanford began making significant private donations in the late 1990s, first by focusing on the care and education of children. He later broadened his interests something that has been apparent in San Diego County, where Sanford has donated money for everything from stem cell research at UC San Diego to improving the San Diego Zoo and revitalizing National.

Denny has had such an impact, not only on National University and the system but society at large, said Cunningham in announcing that Nationals name will be changed next July to more fully reflect Sanfords contributions.

Sanford downplayed the publicity, telling the Union-Tribune, I am not donating to put my name on a building, he said about his latest gift. Ive got my name on a lot of stuff. Im just honored that (National) would consider the university to be named after me.

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Denny Sanford makes historic $350 million gift to expand, invigorate National University - The San Diego Union-Tribune

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October 12th, 2019 at 10:45 am

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