History of GCU

The Beginning as Grand Canyon College

Grand Canyon College was chartered on Aug. 1, 1949, with 16 faculty and approximately 100 students in Prescott, AZ. In 1951, the college relocated to a 90-acre tract in West Phoenix and was accredited in 1968 by the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education. Established as a Baptist-affiliated institution with an emphasis on religious studies, the school initially offered bachelor’s programs in education. Programs expanded to include the sciences, nursing, business, music and fine arts. It was during this time when the college started to develop a reputation for producing effective teachers, nurses and healthcare professionals in the Southwest.

Black and white image of GCU's auditorium

Becoming Grand Canyon University

While planning to change in institutional organization and status to Grand Canyon University, Grand Canyon College identified several landmark events during this transition: organizing programs and departments into colleges, offering graduate degree programs, establishing the Grand Canyon University Foundation and the generosity of those who pledged or gave unrestricted gifts valued at $1 million dollars or more. In May of 1984, college trustees voted to prepare for transition to university status on the school’s 40th anniversary. Then GCU moved from being owned and operated by the Arizona Southern Baptist Convention to being self-owned by the Board of Trustees.

New Mission and Vision

By the early 2000s, GCU struggled with maintaining its operations in light of dwindling financial support. The university faced a critical juncture in September 2003, teetering on the verge of insolvency and facing the prospect of bankruptcy. A small group of investors acquired the university and refocused on online education for working adults. With an improving financial structure, the university recruited a new leadership team in 2008 to envision a future that centered around a hybrid campus strategy—combining traditional students with non-traditional students (primarily working adults studying at the graduate level). The university completed an initial public offering in 2008 to generate the capital necessary to improve its online infrastructure and expand its campus.

University Transformation and Investment

The university grew its campus student body from fewer than 1,000 students in 2009 to over 25,300 campus students in 2022. GCU’s non-traditional student body increased from approximately 22,000 students at the start of 2009 to over 86,000 online and evening cohort students in Fall 2022.

In Fall 2023, GCU had over 77,000 bachelor's-level students, over 35,700 master's-level students and over 5,400 doctoral-level students.1

Between 2009 and June 2022, the university had invested over $1.7 billion dollars — and today, continues to invest in full-time faculty, improved technology infrastructure, new facilities and programmatic expansion in areas such as engineering, computer science and IT. The university has been able to self-fund these investments with only nominal increases in tuition for non-traditional students, while not increasing campus tuition in 15 years.

Returning to Historical Roots

In 2018, GCU transitioned back to a 501(c)(3) institution, which provided faculty and students with equitable opportunities to:

  • Participate in academic and co-curricular opportunities with peer institutions
  • Operate a philanthropic foundation
  • Provide grant writing and research opportunities for faculty and students
  • Invest in educational infrastructure
  • Allow the university to continue offering tuition at levels that make private higher education affordable for our students
  • Provide employment and career growth opportunities for faculty and staff
  • Continue to invest in the communities where the university serves
  • Permit student athletes to participate in governance opportunities afforded by the NCAA


GCU campus in the 1960s
GCU campus present day
Grove on GCU campus

University Development

GCU's campus continues to grow to meet the needs of students and cultivate higher education learning experiences. Here's a snapshot of the campus today — a home away from home for our Lopes:

  • 6,000-seat GCU Stadium and 7,000-seat GCU Arena
  • Contemporary residence halls and apartments
  • Resort-style swimming pools
  • Recreation and fitness centers
  • Student Union and eateries along Lopes Way
  • Two classroom buildings dedicated to STEM learning
  • The Grove - a community of four suite-style residence halls exclusively for freshmen
  • Division I athletics, club sports teams, intramural sports teams
  • Academic, professional, social and recreational clubs
  • Academic and student support resources
GCU Stem Building aerial shot

STEM building opened in fall 2015

Community Transformation

West Phoenix is where GCU calls home. That's why GCU stands committed to transforming the surrounding neighborhoods into a safe, thriving place for those in the community. Along with providing academic excellence and a vibrant campus life, GCU believes its purpose is to partner together to implement initiatives in the area that open educational opportunities for all, create jobs, restore housing and reduce crime. GCU calls this United by Purpose. 

Campus construction

One aspect of this transformative endeavor started with the development project at 27th Avenue and Camelback Road. Developed to be the gateway into West Phoenix, this development serves as a commercial hub featuring:

  • A four-story office complex
  • The renovated GCU Hotel and resort-style pool2
  • Cañón 49 and Grand Canyon Beverage Co. coffee shop
  • Business, economic and education innovation center

This development was only the beginning for reshaping West Phoenix into a destination of economic, tourism, business, employment and educational growth. The university, with support from Grand Canyon Education (GCE), has launched 10 business enterprises that employ nearly 500 people. These enterprises include:

  • Havoc House
  • Grand Canyon Beverage Company (four locations)
  • Lope Shops
  • GCU Golf Course
  • Canyon Promotions
  • Cañón 49
  • Grand Canyon University Hotel2

Tremendous transformation is happening now, and the future looks even brighter.

1 Includes all traditional students who have a last date of attendance at least three weeks into the Fall 2023 semester, students who participated in a campus evening class in September or October of 2023 and students who have participated in an online class in August or September 2023. Includes degree-seeking bridge programs, certificate programs, post-masters, education specialist programs, non-degree studies and continuing education.

Operated by GCE for GCU Discover events.