National Online University plans merger to become California’s second-largest private college

The San Diego-based National University on Monday announced plans to merge with another local online college, expanding the institution’s sizable footprint amid increased demand for distance learning due to the pandemic.

Beginning this fall, Northcentral University, an adult education college also based in San Diego, will drop its moniker and join National, bringing the university’s projected enrollment to more than 42,000 students from about 32. 000.

The University of Southern California is the only large private college in the state, enrolling approximately 49,500 students in the past academic year.

Founded by U.S. Navy Captain David Chigos in 1971, National University has offered undergraduate courses and credentialing programs for adult learners with an increasing emphasis on online courses during of the last decade. The merger will allow the institution to expand its curriculum to include Northcentral’s master’s and doctoral programs, such as nursing, health administration and family therapy.

“As our country continues to deal with rapidly changing workforce needs and a new wave of economic uncertainty, colleges and universities face a new imperative to provide affordable educational offerings, accessible and closely aligned with labor market needs,” Michael Cunningham, National University’s acting president, said in a press release.

About 70% of National’s students take most of their classes online, according to a news release. The average age of a student is 33, and about one in four is a veteran or active-duty military member. The graduation rate for new full-time students is 46%.

The private institution is part of the national university system, which also includes the City University of Seattle. School leaders hope to roughly double the system’s total enrollment to around 100,000 students in the coming years.

“Three years ago, the Board of Trustees approved an ambitious five-year plan, challenging National University leadership to expand access to workforce-relevant degrees and skills to a lower price,” Ruthann Heinrich, chairman of the board of the National University System, said in a press release. “This merger, which now has our accreditation agency’s approval to proceed, is an important step towards realizing that vision.”

A bachelor’s degree at National currently costs about $66,600 and a graduate degree $19,890, according to school officials.

A investigation report released last year by the American Association of University Teachers lambasted National for firing 50 full-time faculty “in blatant disregard of widely accepted standards of university governance.” The report, which examined the administrative practices of several colleges in the wake of the pandemic, also said National’s layoffs had “demoralized a dedicated faculty.”

Cunningham said he disagreed with the findings and that the report did not reflect the position of faculty at the university.

In 2020, National walked away from renaming itself after billionaire T. Denny Sanford, when the mega-donor became involved in a child pornography investigation led by the South Dakota Attorney General. The case was finally closed free of charge. The Sanford’s donations to the school, including $350 million in 2019, played no role in the merger, officials said.

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