Columbia Southern University Strikes It Rich in Vietnam

Columbia Southern University (CSU), a nationally accredited (NA), for-profit online university based in Orange, Alabama, USA, is probably the most profitable US institution of higher education in Vietnam.  CSU has 28,000 students in 22 countries and territories around the world with significant concentrations in Vietnam, China and Hong Kong.  As its website notes, it “offers 23 degree and 23 certificate programs are available in a variety of popular fields such as fire science, criminal justice, business administration, information technology, human resource management and occupational safety and health.” 

Raking It In

Since it began operating in Vietnam, CSU has earned an estimated $18 million in tuition and fees with 2000 MBA graduates.  (Here is a link to the original Vietnamese language version of this article.)  According to an official source, CSU currently has 405 active students from Vietnam. That number was expected to increase last July by 100-200 students, which translates into nearly $5 million in tuition revenue.   One indication of the extent to which CSU is priming the pump is a recent advertising blitz, including standing banners that sprout up like mushrooms in the lobbies of upscale apartment buildings, elevator ads in said apartment buildings, lest you’re lacking for visual stimulation on the ride up, and banner ads on popular websites.

All in The Family

CSU is essentially a family business run by Robert Mayes, Jr., MBA, president, his sister, Chantell Cooley, executive vice president of admissions/partnership development, and her husband, Tommy Cooley, BS, vice president of business affairs. According to their bios, they’re all “pioneers in online education.”  A family friend, Jimmy Weaver, BA, is the controller. CSU was founded in 1993 by Dr. Robert G. Mayes, a respected educator who died in 2005. Robert Mayes, Jr., his mother, Minnie Mayes, and Tommy Cooley also have business ties to Liberty Christian University, Inc. in Pensacola, Florida.    



National Accreditation (NA)

CSU, which appears on my list of nationally accredited US schools active in Vietnam, is accredited (NA) by the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC). Contrary to what DETC and NA school representatives will tell you, comparing nationally accredited schools to their regionally accredited counterparts is like comparing apples and oranges.  One of my favorite examples, always good for a chuckle in public presentations here, is the Bergin University of Canine Studies in California, where you can earn a BS or MS degree in Cynology (i.e., the study of dogs).  

Spreading the Wealth

One major source of income for CSU is the US military through the many enlisted personnel who enroll in CSU online degree programs. The Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support (DANTES) and Veterans Affairs approves tuition assistance for all active-duty and retired military members. More than half of the CSU student body is currently comprised of active-duty military. CSU, which bills itself as a “military friendly college,” is one of approximately 140 schools approved to offer upfront tuition assistance through the U.S. Army centralized tuition assistance portal, GoArmyEd.  According to the CSU website, Completely online programs, open enrollment, flexible courses and affordable tuition allow Servicemembers to achieve a quality education while preserving our nation’s freedom.


The CSU website notes that “At CSU, highly qualified and diverse faculty members are available to offer students individualized attention, advice, and support throughout each course. Our faculty members are recognized leaders within their professions and bring beneficial real-world experience to each course.”  While a number of CSU faculty do have degrees from highly regarded and, in some cases, prestigious institutions, others list degrees from CSU, North Central University, a regionally accredited for-profit online university in Arizona, the University of Phoenix, a regionally accredited for-profit institution in Arizona, California Coast University (NA), Grantham University (NA), Southern California University (NA), etc.

On the Homefront

Orange, Alabama is not a bad place to run a for-profit university. It has everything a business needs to thrive: low taxes, low overhead, and low salaries. According to iTen Wired, CSU spent $2 million on salaries for 64 CSU employees in Baldwin County in 2006. The end result is high net profit. CSU’s “campus,” such as it is, is a 68,310 square foot three-story building completed in 2009 and featured prominently in most of its advertising.  (See the pic at the top of this post.  Below is a satellite view of the CSU building and the surrounding area.)  It was assessed at $1.2 million in 2009.  Construction is underway on a second building at the new 20-acre campus.

Courtesy of Google Maps

Credit Transfer/Degree Recognition

As I alluded to earlier, the difference between national and regional (“gold standard”) accreditation is like night and day. This is the reason why most RA schools will not accept credits or degrees from their NA counterparts. For example, a student with a BS degree in Business Administration from CSU would find it exceedingly difficult to pursue a MBA or other graduate degree at a RA school. While I can’t speak for CSU, many NA schools commit a sin of omission by not informing prospective students of this fact. 

This article on Go 4 Learning! entitled Is Columbia Southern University A Scam? provides a succinct and accurate overview of this issue.   This response also points out one of the limitations of a NA degree:

The Guy says:
June 23, 2011 at 3:46 pm

I was going to take courses at Columbia Southern University so that they would transfer to Portland State University. Before enrolling at Columbia Southern I called Portland State University and asked if they took transfer credit from Columbia Southern. Portland State’s reply: No, we don’t take transfer credits from Columbia Southern University.

Regional Accreditation is the gold standard.