by Jason Garcia
Updated 9 months ago
Just out of Virginia Tech in 1978, Garry Jones had already been offered a job in personnel management paying more than $22,000 a year. But Jones, a psychology major who had spent time touring as a professional guitarist, was intrigued by a small studio in Ohio offering a monthlong introduction to recording engineering. “I thought it would be great to see how records were made,” Jones says.
Jones passed on the personnel management gig, packed his ’74 Pinto wagon and made the 330-mile drive from Blacksburg to Dayton, joining 12 others for a workshop at an outfit that would come to be known as Full Sail Productions. Midway through the monthlong program, company founder Jon Phelps offered him a job as an assistant sound engineer. It paid $9,000 a year, with no benefits. Jones took it.
Nearly three decades later, Jones is president and co-owner. And Full Sail Productions has mushroomed into the for-profit Full Sail University — a 210-acre entertainment industry training ground in Winter Park with almost 1 million square feet of production facilities and an alumni network of nearly 60,000 that includes Grammy, Emmy and Academy Award winners.
Within six years after arriving in Florida in 1980, Full Sail was offering comprehensive degrees and had earned accreditation from the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges, allowing its students to qualify for federal student loans.
Initially a technical center for people looking for jobs in the music business, the school expanded into nearly every corner of entertainment, from video editing and song construction to programs in filmmaking, video games, web design and more. Current offerings include online master’s degrees in specialties such as business intelligence and public relations.
“Every year, we’re reviewing existing programs,” says Isis Jones, Full Sail’s chief information officer, who persuaded school leaders to create a digital media program in the early 1990s. Isis Jones, who is married to Garry Jones, says “we don’t mind experimenting.”
The school has grown to about 16,000 students, including 6,000 on campus and 10,000 online. But the path hasn’t always been smooth. In 1991, two years after moving to Winter Park, it spent millions on its new facilities and wound up in debt. Forced to restructure, it brought in new investors, including Ed Haddock, once the managing partner of the Orlando law firm Swann & Haddock, and his partner, Bill Heavener.
Phelps, Haddock and Heavener are co-chairmen and CEOs; Jones is president. The school is majority owned by companies controlled by the four men; private equity firm TA Associates holds a minority stake. The school declines to disclose financial details.
Everything at Full Sail is designed to mimic the professional world. Students take courses from eight to 12 hours a day — with some classes held late at night or before dawn — to match typical workdays. Full Sail leaders see the school’s ability to pump students into the workforce — it takes 20 months to earn an undergraduate degree on campus — and emphasis on practice over theory as competitive points of difference with traditional universities.
Without the subsidies that public universities receive, Full Sail takes pains to maximize the efficient use of its resources. It admits and graduates new classes of students every month, for example, keeping the campus in full use throughout the year. Students can begin taking classes at almost any time, rather than waiting for a new semester or school year.
Similarly, without sports teams to generate attention and galvanize alumni, Full Sail has had to build its own traditions. Seven years ago, the school established a “Hall of Fame” to honor alumni who have succeeded — and, importantly, who have also given back to the school in some fashion. Full Sail officials liken the yearly induction ceremonies to a traditional university’s homecoming week.
The school has also made partnering with well-known entertainment companies a strategic focus. A few years ago, Full Sail negotiated an agreement with Apple dubbed “Project LaunchBox” in which every student gets the chance to buy — at a steep discount — fully loaded, computers suited to their degree field. Other prominent on-campus partners include ESPN, World Wrestling Entertainment and Wargaming.net.
Full Sail also cultivates political connections: The school’s owners have given more than $300,000 to Gov. Rick Scott’s “Let’s Get to Work” political action committee over the past five years. Meanwhile, the Legislature has created a favorable regulatory environment for for-profit colleges; Florida is one of the few states, for instance, where a private college can obtain a state license simply by being accredited by a national organization.
Full Sail differs from many public universities in another important way: It’s far more expensive, at least compared to in-state tuition. Students pursuing a bachelor’s degree in film at Full Sail pay $77,500 in tuition and fees for the 20-month program — well over $600 per credit hour. In-state undergrads at the University of Central Florida, by contrast, pay a little more than $210 per credit hour (though out-of-state students pay nearly $750 per credit hour).
Loan debt is a weight on many students. Full Sail’s student-loan default rate is 19.4%, according to federal government data, compared to 4.3% at UCF.
Full Sail leaders argue that public university tuition rates don’t reflect millions in taxpayer subsidies. They also say Full Sail invests much of its money back into the school — about $70 million on capital improvements over the past five years — ensuring its students learn with the latest technologies. Full Sail’s campus has more than 110 studios and labs, with features such as a fabrication laboratory with 3-D printers and augmented-reality devices, a Dolby-certified dubbing theater with Avid sound-editing and DaVinci video-editing systems, and a full-sized filming back lot with facades depicting New York, New Orleans and more.
Full Sail leaders acknowledge that their school is for students who’ve already defined their career goals. “We don’t attract the typical university-bound student,” Garry Jones says. “Our students are completely done with discovery mode.”