DeVry Has a Plan to Educate Former Football Players

For-profit educator DeVry University has caught on to what traditional universities have long known: Sports can be a great way to market an education.

The Downer’s Grove (Ill.) school has become the “official education provider” to Pro Football Legends, a group for players, coaches, and other professionals who worked for NFL teams. Under the terms of the deal, announced last week, former NFLers can enroll in DeVry University at reduced cost. Players’ spouses and dependent children are also eligible for discounted tuition.

Reached by e-mail, DeVry spokeswoman Donna Conklin-Shaults declined to say how big the tuition savings would be. DeVry reported revenue of $496 million in the three months ended March 31.

It’s not DeVry’s first foray into sports sponsorship. In 2011, the company struck a deal with the U.S. Olympic Committee to offer reduced or waived tuition to Olympic hopefuls, helping the educator land 15 U.S. athletes who were in the Sochi Games. The logic to that partnership: Winter Olympians often live and train in snowy, mountainous parts, where DeVry’s online programs hold particular appeal. DeVry was particularly popular with U.S. lugers, many of whom live in sparsely populated Lake Placid, N.Y.

Less obvious is that DeVry’s educational model offers any special benefits to retired NFL players—although in this case, it’s probably enough to be picking up a piece of the tab. In 2009, Sports Illustrated reported that 78 percent of former NFL players had “gone bankrupt or are under financial stress” within two years of retirement. In the NCAA’s highest division, 71 percent of college football players in the entering class of 2006 graduated within six years, according to data published by the NCAA last year. Graduation rates for players who make the NFL were probably lower, because some players leave school early to join the pros.

In return for offering discounts to NFL alumni, DeVry gets some good will and a chance to tap into the public’s fascination with the intellectual lives of professional athletes. (One recent manifestation of that interest: Chicago Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall made headlines this month when he said he would enroll in a four-day seminar at Harvard Business School.) DeVry also joins such schools as George Washington University and Florida A&M University in seeking to attract retired pro athletes.

Assuming that the tuition discounts are enough to make the sponsorship a good deal for retired players, that leaves one obvious question. Whether he graduated or not, virtually every NFL player attended college—where many risked their good health and dedicated thousands of hours to football. Shouldn’t the “official education provider” of retired NFL players be the NCAA?

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