NYTimes.com, January 28, 2014. They have no mascot or motto, no home rink, oval or stadium. They have no hockey team, curling squad or figure skaters. They have no coaches, no athletic director, and their basketball team once lost by 117 points.
But for all that, this week, DeVry University could lay claim to being one of the nation’s most prominent athletic institutions.
On Monday, DeVry — the for-profit educator perhaps best known to insomniacs and other viewers of late-night television — landed 15 students on the national Olympic team headed for the Sochi Games in Russia, including serious medal contenders in Alpine skiing, bobsled and luge, courtesy of a partnership the university signed in late 2011 with the United States Olympic Committee.
And while the pedigree might not be impressive, members of Team DeVry say the price (often free) and the hours (unusually flexible) are.
“I have heard people say, ‘Oh, DeVry, it’s not Stanford.’ Well, yeah, it’s not,” said Steven Holcomb, a gold medalist in bobsled at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and a DeVry undergraduate in computer science. “It’s a different type of education. If I had time to go and money to dedicate to something like that, I would. But it’s just not that feasible.”
DeVry is one of dozens of licensees and sponsors — like Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Nike — who pay for the right to align themselves with Team USA, and use the Olympic rings to sell everything from eyeglasses to grape jelly. The deal, the terms of which were not disclosed, runs through the 2016 Games. It made DeVry an official education provider to a large pool of hopefuls, offering reduced or waived tuition for the university’s classes, which can be taken online and can cover subjects as diverse as laboratory science and game programming (video games, not actual athletics).
Olympic officials said the arrangement was popular for its young amateurs, many of whom struggle to balance classes with rigorous training schedules, especially for the winter sports, where facing top international competitors often means traveling overseas during the academic year. Many of those athletes also train in remote areas — such as Lake Placid, N.Y., or Park City, Utah — not well-served by upper-tier, brick-and-mortar educational institutions.
“It is impossible for many of our athletes to train on the schedule that they do and go to a four-year university,” said Jon Mason, a U.S.O.C. spokesman.
Indeed, while the Summer Games are often fed by athletic powerhouses like Auburn, Florida and Southern California, the Winter Games draw from a more eclectic group, including small colleges like Utah Valley, Alaska Pacific and the Community College of Rhode Island. The leading Olympic feeder this year is Westminster College, a four-year liberal-arts college in Salt Lake City, which counts 3,100 students — and more than 20 Olympians.
DeVry, which claims about 60,000 students on more than 90 campuses and unknown numbers of laptops, is by far the Olympics’ most prominent for-profit university. Such institutions have been the subject of criticism for a raft of issues, including high tuitions, low graduation rates and overly aggressive marketing.
Robert Shireman, a former deputy undersecretary of the Department of Education, said that for-profit institutions were under fire from some quarters because nearly 90 percent of their students receive student loans.
“There are worries that the federal dollars are driving the schools to serve students that cannot benefit and make promises that they cannot keep,” Shireman said. “I’m sure there are people that benefit enormously from the degrees they get at for-profit institutions. But the problem is the large number of people that come out with big debt and no job.”
DeVry’s parent company has been the subject of recent investigations by two states — Illinois and Massachusetts — according to an April filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. At that time, the company said the inquiries — dealing with compensation practices and false claims — were being met with “a view toward transparency and an interest in demonstrating the compliant nature of its practices.” The company said Tuesday that it cooperated with the inquiries and had heard nothing further.
As for the Olympics, the university’s president, David J. Pauldine, said his institution was proud to be supporting the futures of the athletes in sports like bobsled — which has four DeVryians heading to the Olympics — and luge, which has six.
“There’s a very small percentage of athletes who will make it big,” Pauldine said, “so it’s all about life after the Games.”
And if that connection helps raise DeVry’s image and reputation, so be it, Pauldine added.
“I think every institution aspires to be seen in the most favorable light,” he said. “And often, you’re measured by the relationships you forge.”
The university has had one Olympic standout since it signed the deal — the swimmer Peter Vanderkaay, a bronze medalist in the 400 meter freestyle in 2012 — but its athletic history has largely been underwhelming. The university was founded in Chicago in 1931 as the DeForest Training School, aimed at teaching students about electronics and its uses. It later became the DeVry Technical Institute, and could be seen advertising on television with graduates who had forgone a traditional college for success at DeVry.
That success, though, did not include sports. In 1992, DeVry set a record on the basketball court in the most embarrassing of ways when its squad was defeated, 258-141, by Troy. Today, the university has had one of its basketball teams, based in Houston, downsize to a men’s club league. Another DeVry team, in South Florida, disbanded last year.
“The team was having problems securing a gym for regular practices,” said Donna A. Shaults, a university spokeswoman.
The lack of glory days has not seemed to dissuade athletes like Elana Meyers, a former collegiate softball star. Meyers, 29, had already earned a bachelor’s degree from George Washington University before decamping to the Olympic training center in Lake Placid to pursue bobsled.
The training worked — she and her partner, Erin Pac, won a bronze medal in 2010 — but she’s pursuing a master’s at DeVry in business administration because she knows there are few professional opportunities for world-class bobsledders.
“Whether I win a gold medal or I finish dead last, come March, I’m going to need to find a job,” she said.
And while she’s taking only one online class at a time, she said the spartan conditions at the training center — dormmates, shared bathrooms, group cafeteria — make her feel as if she were on a real campus. “It’s pretty much like being back in college,” she said.
Holcomb, 33, echoed that, saying that his DeVry experience was no less challenging than his brief career at Utah, which he gave up to pursue his Olympic dreams. Two years ago, for example, his online instructor scheduled his final exam in statistics on the same day as his team trials in four-man bobsled.
“It was pretty stressful and overwhelming,” Holcomb said. “But I still got an A.”