How to Sell a University

On a Sunday morning in August, after bagpipers performed and before a bald eagle made two swooping passes over the crowd, President Nido Qubein stepped to the front of the stage in High Point University’s arena to address the opening convocation of the largest first-year class in school history. 

Against a backdrop of eight American flags, the white-haired president, dressed in a purple academic robe, delivered one of his favorite lines: “Choose to be extraordinary.”

“This isn’t some advertising slogan we picked up,” he declared. “This is a deep-seated belief. That every student on this campus can and should be extraordinary.”

Qubein, a man known for grand gestures, such as flying in an eagle from a Missouri bird sanctuary for a cameo appearance, happens to be a motivational speaker and marketing wizard. That morning, both skills were on full display. 

The packed audience, including 1,600 new students and their families, listened as he promised that High Point University, which brands itself as the “Premier Life Skills University,” would do all it could to ensure students received a great education. Parents chuckled when he told them to go home so they could “earn more money to pay for the spring semester.” 

And the crowd roared approval when he outlined the university’s core beliefs—faith in “God Almighty,” patriotism, respect for the flag, appreciation of private enterprise, democracy, and justice for all. “I know that’s not in vogue to say all those things,” Qubein told the crowd, “but there; I said them.”

Audience members didn’t need to look far to see Qubein’s impact. They were seated in the Nido and Mariana Qubein Arena and Conference Center, one of more than 100 buildings constructed on his watch. Some had spent the previous night in the attached boutique hotel, where pillows are embroidered with another favorite Qubein slogan: “God. Family. Country.”

Top: Nido Qubein delivers an opening address at the August convocation, in the new Nido and Mariana Qubein Arena. Below: Students and their families attend convocation. (Kate Medley for The Assembly)

Beyond the arena was a campus that had expanded since 2005 from 91 to 520 acres, expertly landscaped into a Disney-esque mini city with fountains and heated swimming pools, a high-end steak house, and a concierge service—“literally a resort,” one enthusiastic student quipped in a recent YouTube video, “an all-inclusive vacation with a side of homework.” 

Qubein, an HPU alum, is both the architect and face of this brand. At the convocation, a video, complete with soaring music and reminders of his many books and awards, introduced him as “the leader who transformed High Point University into one of the finest and most unique in the nation.”

The school has seen more than $2 billion in investments since Qubein arrived, not just in buildings but in new academic programs, services, and expansive marketing that draws a student body mostly from out of state.

Along the way, it has become a national exemplar of enrollment success, as well as Exhibit A in the debate over how far to push a customer-service approach to higher education. 

High Point University is a nonprofit organization, but its operating margins are among the highest for private colleges, driven mostly by tuition, housing, and food-service fees. Enrollment, a record of nearly 6,000 this year, is generating enough excess cash to help fuel an audacious $400 million plan to add several graduate professional schools. The first, law and dentistry, are to open in 2024, the school’s centennial year. 

Officials from some 300 schools have visited HPU, Qubein says, keen to learn the key to its success. For both admirers and critics, including many who offer grudging respect for the university’s accomplishments, the answer begins with Qubein himself, a Jordanian immigrant who came to the United States for an education and became one of the nation’s highest-paid college presidents. 

Qubein has built his legacy around unconventional ideas and big ambitions, many of which have come to pass. But at 74, he still talks like a leader with a full agenda. 

“This is a university on the move,” he declared at the convocation, pounding his lectern for emphasis. “If you’re looking for a sleepy-weepy place, this is not the place. Here, we believe we can make things happen.”

Convocation included a special guest appearance by an eagle. (Kate Medley for The Assembly)

The Businessman President

If anyone understands that higher education can provide a springboard to a better life, it’s Nidal “Nido” Raji Qubein. 

For decades, he has told the story of arriving in North Carolina at 17 to attend Mount Olive Junior College. He has wound this bio into the university’s success narrative, too; friends and business acquaintances repeat it with admiration.

Qubein’s father died when he was 6, and though his mother, a seamstress, struggled to support her five children, she insisted he go to the U.S. for college. His family was Christian, and he picked the Baptist school in Eastern North Carolina because its name reminded him of Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives. 

“I could hardly speak any English, I didn’t know anyone, and I had $50 in my pocket,” he said in a video for his 2006 Horatio Alger Award, given to outstanding Americans who have overcome adversity.

Qubein (pronounced coo-bane) tends to leave out some key details. He studied at St. George’s School, a private, English-speaking school run by the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem. His uncle was bishop of the Episcopal church in Jordan. His two older brothers had graduated from Duke University, and other relatives attended U.S. colleges to become doctors, administrators, and engineers, as he told a reporter in 1966. 

Qubein transferred to HPU after two years and graduated in 1970 with a bachelor’s in human relations. Though his GRE scores were “pitifully low,” he talked UNC-Greensboro’s business school dean into accepting him, he told the Greensboro News & Record in 2003, and earned a master’s in business education. Though he refers to himself as “Dr. Qubein,” the master’s is his highest degree; he’s received only honorary doctorates. 

Nido Qubein at convocation. (Kate Medley for The Assembly)

He launched his first business in the early 1970s with an idea inspired by his work as a church youth director—a subscription newsletter called “Adventures with Youth,” offering ideas for program directors. After honing his speaking skills giving church talks about the Holy Land, he also began traveling the country as a supper-club speaker.

By the 1980s, his career had taken off. He was doing corporate consulting and motivational speaking, charging $2,500 for a 45-minute talk and leading weekend seminars for corporate clients, according to a 1983 Money magazine article. “Although most of his thoughts on becoming a leader are neither profound nor original, Qubein puts on a memorable show, bouncing from easel to blackboard, gliding from one anecdote to another,” the magazine wrote.

He won speaking awards, sold books and tapes, and rubbed elbows with motivational heavyweights. In 2003, he told a reporter that he came to this country to become a millionaire: “That’s what America is all about! You don’t come to America to check out the trees and go to McDonald’s.” 

He served as chairman of Great Harvest Bread Company and helped found a bank in High Point. He now sits on the board of Truist, the nation’s seventh-largest bank. 

Qubein was vice chair of the HPU board of trustees and on track to become chairman when fellow trustees asked him to be president. At first, he wasn’t sure. He had a busy, lucrative career that included advising CEOs on strategies for long-term success. He figured he’d do the job for a couple of years. 

But Qubein discovered he loved being president. Eighteen years later, he wants to finish the job. “To a great extent, I put us on this trajectory,” he told The Assembly, “and I cannot leave the work undone.”

Director of ‘Wow’

On a fall day, with students away on break, Qubein arrived for an interview with The Assembly in business casual instead of his trademark suit, bright tie, and pocket square. 

He’d been up since before dawn, as usual, and though he has told the school’s story countless times, he was happy to discuss the role that has become his most significant life’s work.

The private Methodist school he took over in 2005 had educated generations of Triad students. Like many small liberal arts colleges, it was struggling, but several former faculty members told The Assembly it still delivered a good education. 

The 2022-23 enrollment is a record for the school. (Kate Medley for The Assembly)
The campus reflects Qubein’s personal ethos in many ways. (Kate Medley for The Assembly)

Qubein’s assessment is harsher. He says he took over “a broke and broken place” that faced $120 million in deferred maintenance. It had less than 1,700 traditional students. And its location, in a lower-income section of a city still reeling from job losses in furniture and textile manufacturing, wasn’t a helpful selling point. 

He knew an overhaul was in order, but he didn’t arrive with a full-blown vision. “I’d like to tell you that I had this all imagineered, but not at all,” he said. “What happened was, as we accomplished one thing, we saw a pathway to accomplish something else.” 

He began by tapping wealthy friends in the High Point area, saying he was contributing money to the university and inviting them to join. In less than two years, he’d brought in nearly $60 million at a school accustomed to raising a few million a year. 

Enrollment for traditional-age students (excluding a former evening program for working adults). Source: High Point University

He also concluded that HPU needed more students who could afford the school’s full cost. To attract them, High Point University had to get noticed. 

The school bought surrounding property, including 1,200 houses, and remade the physical campus. It added majors and graduate programs, along with uncommon amenities, such as car washes and an ice cream truck. Qubein even hired a “director of wow,” tasked with delighting students. “Our edge is going to be in client service,” he told the Winston-Salem Journal in 2006. And by clients, he meant students. 

To finance the expansion, the school borrowed so heavily that Moody’s Investors Services downgraded its debt rating to “junk” status. In a 2012 story headlined “Bubble U,” Bloomberg Businessweek reported that HPU was “one of the most highly leveraged schools in the country,” almost totally dependent on cash flow from student revenue.

One lingering impression from that story was that HPU was a house of cards, verging on financial collapse. Qubein hasn’t forgotten. “Her predictions were silly,” he said of the reporter. 

Since then, the university has pared its debt by more than a third, to $102.6 million, and reclaimed an A- investment-grade rating from S&P Global Ratings for its publicly sold bonds.

But the school still depends on student tuition and fees for most of its operating revenues, according to S&P, and doesn’t get substantial income from investments or other sources. HPU’s endowment of $139 million is below the national median of $200 million.

Enrollment growth has been the financial engine powering the university’s expansion in recent years. Under Qubein, that revenue just keeps coming.

Source: High Point University

In 2021, the school posted an eye-popping 27.7 percent operating surplus, far outpacing the 1.8 percent median for private colleges and universities with bonds rated by S&P, according to its analysts. With an annual cost of $59,000 for tuition and fees, dining, room and board, HPU has grown steadily, even while the past decade’s enrollment at U.S. private nonprofit colleges has dipped slightly.

There’s one exception to this growth juggernaut: HPU’s financial aid packages now cover a smaller percentage of student need than before Qubein took over. Aid covered about 30 percent of financial need in 2021, down from nearly 50 percent in 2005, according to the school. 

Students who aren’t wealthy don’t get much relief. In 2020-21, first-year HPU students with family incomes of $30,000 or less paid an average annual “net price” of $33,814, according to federal data. Down the road, at Elon University, that figure was $24,048. At Duke University, with its $12 billion endowment, it was just $2,945.

Source: High Point University

The government defines net price as a school’s list price, including room and board, minus federal Pell Grants, state and local scholarships, and money the school provides. Students and their families are supposed to pay the rest with loans, savings, and income. 

Roughly a third of U.S. students receive Pell Grants, which go mostly to families making less than $60,000. Analysts often use Pell data to measure a school’s commitment to economic mobility. In 2020, only 11.5 percent of HPU’s first-year students were Pell recipients, putting the school at No. 1,629 out of 1,658 institutions in the rankings of advocacy group Education Reform Now. (Two nearby private universities ranked even lower—Elon at 1,650 and Wake Forest at 1,642.)

In his motivational talks, Qubein teaches that individuals can succeed, no matter the circumstances, if they make the right choices. “If you want to be rich, find out what poor people do and don’t do it,” he said in a 2020 interview about his life titled Extraordinary is a Choice.

But Qubein told The Assembly he understands the struggle to pay for college. “You’re looking at a guy who ate peanuts for dinner when I was in school. You’re looking at a guy who bought Swanson dinners three for a buck,” he said. “I know what being poor is.”

Even before he became president, Qubein was known for funding scholarships for local students, honoring a commitment he says he made after an anonymous donor paid off his Mount Olive student debt. He has personally given $10 million to HPU, which ranked him third among U.S. college presidents who donated the most to their schools from 2006-16, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education

“Please know that my heart breaks,” he said, “when somebody doesn’t come to the school because of financial aid.” 

Qubein said he couldn’t make student aid a priority when he arrived in 2005, because HPU was then the equivalent of a startup: “We had to build the infrastructure to ensure the sustainability of this university.”

Since Qubein became president, HPU has invested more than $2 billion into the campus. (Kate Medley for The Assembly)
Students sign an honor code following convocation. (Kate Medley for The Assembly)
One of HPU’s latest construction projects. (Kate Medley for The Assembly)

In 2019, however, the school unveiled plans for $1 billion in investments that included $700 million for scholarships. Qubein told the News & Record he wanted High Point University to be more affordable and more racially and ethnically diverse. “I don’t want this school to be just for rich kids,” he said.

Today, most of that scholarship money appears to be years away. “Unequivocally, yes, we have to focus more on that,” Qubein told The Assembly.

At the same time, Qubein has been among the nation’s highest-paid university presidents in recent years. In 2019, he ranked sixth on The Chronicle’s list of private college presidents, with total pay over $2.91 million.

HPU Board of Trustees Chair Chris Henson, a retired Truist banking executive, said a compensation consultant provides salary advice, adding that Qubein is a hands-on manager, as well as the school’s public champion and primary fundraiser.

When The Assembly noted that Qubein made more than Harvard University’s president, Henson responded: “Has Harvard undergone the transformation in the last 15 years that High Point has?”

‘The Customer Is King’

Up a short elevator ride in HPU’s student center, 1924 Prime operates as both a high-end steakhouse and a fine-dining learning lab for social etiquette and business skills. Students must make reservations and dress up, and they can get coaching on how to navigate professional meetings held over meals.

“The steakhouse,” as it’s called, illustrates HPU’s focus on simulating real-life experiences. The campus also has a replica of a Wall Street trading room, complete with a stock ticker and world clocks, and a mock-up of an airplane interior, where students can practice pitching business ideas to seatmates. Such extras have given the school a reputation, but not for academics.

In 2021, BuzzFeed put High Point at No. 1 on its list of ”The 16 Swankiest College Campuses, Ranked By Their Luscious Vibes,” marveling over dorms with pools and basketball courts, the campus movie theater, an arcade and “an actual steakhouse.” 

“You can’t read about amenities in higher education without coming across High Point,” said Kevin R. McClure, a UNC-Wilmington associate professor who has explored the topic in his research on higher education finance and management.

HPU’s student amenities include an on-campus arcade, movie theater, and pools. (Kate Medley for The Assembly)

Ron Lieber, a New York Times financial columnist and author who writes often on higher education, focused heavily on HPU in a 2021 Town & Country story asking how far colleges should go in “pulling the levers of luxury.” 

Qubein seems impatient with the topic. “We don’t have lazy rivers” as some campuses do, he told The Assembly. “We don’t have climbing mountains. We don’t have boats.”

“Someone might look at fountains and flags,” he said, but the school’s daily focus is to “make the academic program here sufficiently valuable for every student who enters our hallways.”

Yet as he looks ahead to the next phase of HPU’s development, the luxury reputation is hard to shake, because it has worked. In a crowded marketplace, HPU has succeeded in enrolling the “full-pay students everyone wants,” said Robert Kelchen, a higher education researcher based at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

One of the best illustrations: High Point hasn’t had to rely as much as other private colleges on discounting—knocking off part of the sticker price—to get students to enroll. In 2021, HPU’s discount rate was 29.2 percent, according to S&P Global Ratings, compared to the 54.5 percent average found in a national survey.

For students who can pay, “amenities and customer service” are the draw at HPU, Kelchen said. “It doesn’t seem to be especially the academic side of the house.”

That customer service includes “success coaches” for first-year students and access to “innovators in residence,” such as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and Dallas Mavericks CEO Cynthia “Cynt” Marshall, who visit the campus a couple times a year and provide mentoring.

Jean-Francois Llorens, a retired French professor, believes HPU would have closed if not for Qubein. He credits the president for creating a culture “to take care of students, make sure they are succeeding.”

“The customer is king” at HPU, he said, and customers, i.e., students, are “looking for a diploma that will be accessible in a painless manner that will give them a key for a good job.” 

With an 80 percent acceptance rate in 2021, HPU’s selectivity is similar to nearby Elon University, at 78 percent, according to U.S. News & World Report. It’s much less selective than Wake Forest, at 25 percent, and Duke, at 6 percent. 

Families, many from out of state, arrive to drop off their children for freshman year. (Kate Medley for The Assembly)

What kind of education does HPU deliver? Qubein and the university tout a few numbers, particularly this one: 98 percent of its 2021 graduates were employed or in grad school within six months, 14 points above the national average. 

High Point’s six-year graduation rate has also risen under Qubein, from 46 percent in 2005 to 70 percent in 2021, two points above the average for private non-profit colleges. 

And HPU trumpets a No. 1 U.S. News & World Report ranking in the Regional Colleges-South category. But even as its enrollment and programs have grown, the school has relied on an exemption that keeps it out of the more competitive national university category with schools such as UNC, Duke, Wake Forest, Elon, and Campbell. 

U.S. News uses the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education’s “basic classification” system to determine its ranking categories. HPU has asked for—and received—exemptions to remain in its current category since at least 2005, according to Sara Gast, deputy executive director of Carnegie Classification Systems. 

The school also scores low in several other major rankings, especially those that focus on what students get for the price of their education and how colleges advance economic opportunity.

Money magazine’s ranked High Point No. 612 among 623 schools on its Best Colleges 2022 list, using factors like academic quality, affordability, and financial outcomes.

Washington Monthly, which ranks schools based on “what they do for the country” (using measures such as costs for lower-income families, loan repayment history, and service), put HPU at No. 211 of 259 in its bachelor’s colleges category this year.

Of course, an educational institution’s success can be defined in many ways. 

McClure, the UNC-Wilmington professor, recalled the way some critics in academia viewed Qubein and HPU a few years ago—“mocked would not be too strong a word.” But the jokes are fewer these days, he said, “as you hear about High Point building a new building and getting another huge donation or meeting enrollment goals and surpassing them.”

Kelchen, who oversees Washington Monthly’s rankings and wrote a book on higher education accountability, notes that “quite a few small private colleges would like to follow High Point’s example” because it’s “incredibly profitable right now.”

HPU has found a lucrative niche, Kelchen said, but given its nonprofit status, “the bigger question is, what are they doing for the public good?”

Qubein U 

As you drive toward HPU on Montlieu Avenue, it becomes Qubein Avenue several blocks from the school. The city council renamed the stretch of road in 2021. 

A black fence topped with gold-colored finials surrounds the campus. Guards are stationed at gates, which HPU calls “Welcome Centers.” Some locals disparage the gated campus, but Qubein says it keeps students safe: “You will be pressed to find a parent who doesn’t like that.”

Inside the fence lies a reimagined High Point University—not just the physical campus but an institution whose ethos reflects Qubein’s passions, style, and beliefs. 

The campus has grown from 91 to 520 acres. (Kate Medley for The Assembly)

As a self-described business guy who has preached that America is built on profit, Qubein has found novel ways to maximize revenue. For instance, HPU’s price tag includes only its lowest-priced dorms, but there are five additional price levels. At the highest end, HPU’s “tiny homes,” new 500-square-foot, single-occupancy houses, add an additional $17,541. 

And while many private schools rely on an early-decision program that helps them lock in tuition revenue, HPU goes further: Like first-class passengers who get priority boarding, its early-decision students choose housing and classes before their classmates. They can move in a day early and enjoy a designated freshman-year parking space. 

Many colleges cater to big donors, and at High Point, there’s a widely used term for students whose parents are major donors: Very Important Families, or VIFs for short. “It was a general consensus among students, if you were a VIF, you would get special treatment,” said Ally Ortolani, a 2021 graduate. 

There’s no mention of VIFs in HPU’s online-giving information, but the school does advertise priority housing selection to upperclassmen whose families donate at least $10,000. Several students also told The Assembly that officials look the other way when a VIF breaks the rules. 

Qubein, asked about VIFs, responded: “What school does not lend, you know, additional value if you’re a supportive donor? But here’s what we don’t do: We don’t compromise the academic protocol.”

He disputed claims that VIFs can break rules without consequences. “Someone who is jealous was telling you that, or that’s a misconception,” he said. 

After years lecturing on the secrets to success, Qubein now helps shape the university’s focus on life skill-building. First-year students take his required seminar, which covers topics like financial literacy and goal-setting—topics he also covers in his book How to Get Anything You Want. Most Mondays, the university’s Instagram account features one of his motivational pep talks. “You must view your life,” he says in one clip, “as being in a constant state of improvement.”

The school’s “God. Family. Country.” slogan, which adorns the cover of its promotional viewbook, also flows straight from Qubein’s beliefs. He’s a registered Republican who hosted a 2016 rally on campus for then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, sparking a rare protest. 

The Princeton Review ranks HPU 14th on its list of schools with the most conservative students, though Qubein describes the campus as centrist. He believes in inclusion and welcomes diversity, he says, but as an immigrant grateful that America welcomed him, “I don’t want someone disrespecting the flag. I don’t want someone just whining about America.” 

In August, Qubein told a meeting of adjunct professors that if a HPU basketball player took a knee in protest during the national anthem, he’d cancel the season. 

Qubein’s patriotism and politics have translated into successful branding, appealing to parents turned off by left-leaning campuses. Dan Martinelli, whose daughter is in her first year at HPU, is one of them. The Cleveland, Ohio, resident says he’s already considering the school for his 9-year-old son. “I fear the world will be difficult for him as a white man,” he said. 

The Influencer

On campus, Qubein enjoys a high profile. He poses for photos with students and hams it up in TikTok videos. On Halloween, he strolled the student center wearing googly-eyed glasses, passing out oversized candy bars. He recently gave every first-year student a teddy bear, with instructions to pass it on to someone who has impacted their lives. 

Off campus, he’s an influential leader. Each week, he reaches viewers statewide via Side by Side with Nido Qubein, an interview program he hosts on PBS North Carolina. In the city of High Point, where some businesses display “We (heart) HPU” signs, he jump-started a downtown revitalization effort, helping land a minor-league baseball team and raising money for projects like the new Nido & Mariana Qubein Children’s Museum. 

As a salesman, Qubein is prone to grandiose talk that sometimes bleeds into exaggeration. He told business leaders in a video last summer that all HPU’s faculty members have Ph.D.s or M.D.s. (They don’t.) He said on a 2021 podcast that he raised $100 million to build High Point’s baseball stadium, and that he and his family built the $30 million children’s museum. (Others were involved.) In August, he told Business North Carolina that the university’s net assets were $1.3 billion (They are $878 million, according to a 2022 audit.)

But he has given millions of dollars to civic causes in High Point, where he and his wife of 45 years, Mariana, raised four children. And under his leadership, the university itself has become a major benefactor.

Since 2016, HPU has given more than $29 million to 30 organizations, according to the university and its Internal Revenue Service filings. Gifts include more than $1 million to Greensboro’s Bennett College, a cash-strapped historically Black women’s college trying to raise enough money to keep its accreditation. The High Point Community Foundation received the most—$24 million, much of it for downtown projects, including the Qubein children’s museum.

The university also gives to the city in other ways, with a pro bono physical therapy clinic, an on-campus celebration of veterans, a half-million service hours, and more, according to HPU. The city estimates the university’s annual economic impact is $795 million. 

Top: High Point businesses tout their support for the university. Below: High Point’s new children’s museum. (Kate Medley for The Assembly)

Some leaders say that Qubein, who’s been honored as both High Point’s philanthropist of the year and citizen of the year, is the city’s most powerful person. “Times two,” said Latimer Alexander, a former city council member. 

Mayor Jay Wagner acknowledged that “a certain portion of the population” believes the university runs this city of 116,000, but he sees impact rather than undue influence. Qubein’s leadership produced not just growth for the university, Wagner said, but a “change in the mindset” of the city. “What that’s brought to High Point is nothing short of amazing,” Wagner said.

Qubein has detractors, including some faculty. But few speak publicly, and local criticism has been nearly nonexistent in recent years. That was true even after a fraternity pledge’s death raised questions about how the university handled a fraternity whose members included Qubein’s son Michael.

In 2012, junior Robert Tipton died after a night in the off-campus apartment of a Delta Sigma Phi fraternity member. A state medical examiner ruled that an overdose of oxymorphone had caused his death. His mother, Deborah Tipton, alleged he’d been beaten and filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the fraternity and university. 

The state’s autopsy report detailed bruises on his head, face, neck, and abdomen, though the medical examiner ruled that Tipton’s injuries didn’t contribute to his death. How he got them remains unresolved.

His mother alleged in a Bloomberg story that the university was “covering up the truth” because Qubein’s son was a fraternity member, and that the police had no interest in pursuing “one of the community’s most influential institutions.” 

Court documents in the case noted that the fraternity chapter had been sanctioned in 2009 after a pledge reported hazing that included a beating. And three former campus security officers said in affidavits they’d been told not to discipline the fraternity or Qubein’s son. 

All claims have now been dismissed. A Guilford County judge removed both the university and national fraternity from the lawsuit, and in 2021, Deborah Tipton dismissed her claims against the remaining defendants, two fraternity members.

The Assembly asked Henson, a longtime HPU trustee and current chair, if the board made an independent inquiry in the case, given that the president’s son was a fraternity member. “I would direct you to the school for that,” he said. 

The school didn’t investigate Tipton’s death, HPU Vice President for Communications Pam Haynes responded via email, because the incident occurred in a private apartment and “the university has no jurisdiction off campus.” 

The national Delta Sigma Phi revoked the HPU chapter’s charter two years after the incident. Michael Qubein, meanwhile, now works as a project coordinator in university relations at HPU. 

The Next Frontier

During a Chamber of Commerce gathering last summer, Nido Qubein was selling again. In a video address to regional business leaders, he talked up High Point University’s next transformation: a plan to add the state’s first private dental school, along with law and nursing schools, a new library, and North Carolina’s first school of optometry.

 “This is big stuff!” Qubein said. “Our future is so bright—if it were any brighter, we’d all have to wear sunglasses.”

Qubein has seen his name go up on buildings, raised hundreds of millions of dollars, and won countless awards. But with a contract through 2029, he told The Assembly he’s in no rush to retire, and his goal now is to turn HPU’s success into financial sustainability.  

Despite its big operating margins, the university under Qubein became rich in land and buildings (which account for almost 90 percent of its net assets) while remaining limited in cash and investments. Given its dependence on student tuition and fees, the school has to keep growing those numbers to keep its operating strength, according to a July report from S&P Global Ratings.

School leaders say new professional education could help by strengthening academics, adding tuition revenue and building a wealthy alumni base to support the school long-term. Also, it might bring new respect. 

HPU has added more than 100 buildings in 18 years and is getting ready to build a law school, a dental school and a new library. (Kate Medley for The Assembly)

“A law school, well envisioned, well resourced, especially with faculty and so on, brings prestige to an institution,” Qubein said. 

But so far, controversy over Qubein’s choice of a dean has dominated news about the planned school. 

On June 7, HPU announced that Mark Martin, a former N.C. Supreme Court chief justice and then dean at Regent University’s law school, would become founding dean at High Point. Martin had been an informal adviser helping shape former President Donald Trump’s legal strategy as he sought  to overturn the 2020 election, according to published reports; Qubein and HPU quickly faced calls to withdraw the appointment.

Qubein has stuck by his choice. Martin would not agree to an interview, and has not responded publicly, but he defended his record and commitment to constitutional principles in a statement to The Assembly, and said he had accepted the 2020 results.

Even without the controversy, the law school faces challenges. High Point will have to compete in a national marketplace that, since the Great Recession, has seen more law school closings than openings. North Carolina has six existing programs, four of them private. The for-profit Charlotte School of Law closed in 2017 after just 11 years.

Qubein says his law school has a built-in market: HPU graduates who want a legal career. He and Martin outlined their vision in a glowing account in Attorney at Law magazine, describing a school that, among other goals, would stress affordability and address acute needs for legal aid in North Carolina.

The new dental school will be the state’s first private program, adding to the public UNC Adams School of Dentistry and the East Carolina University School of Dental Medicine, both of which focus primarily on in-state students.

Qubein recruited Scott De Rossi, formerly UNC’s dental school dean, to lead the new program. Then he landed a $32 million gift from Richard Workman, founder of Heartland Dental (the nation’s biggest dental clinic management company), offering both the chance to help build a school from scratch.

The Workman School of Dental Medicine expects to start taking applications in May. De Rossi told The Assembly the school is already charting a different path: For instance, it won’t require the standard dental school entrance exam or application fees, and it will aim to keep tuition below the national average by drawing on revenue from new HPU-affiliated dental practices to offset costs, he said.

Qubein emphasizes the importance of leading a life of success and significance—and while he has achieved both, his story carries some irony: A man whose personal narrative revolves around coming to college without money now earns one of academia’s top presidential salaries at a school that’s financially out of reach for many students.

He insists, however, that more scholarship money is on the horizon. Once this latest expansion is complete, Qubein can focus on building an endowment that funds additional aid.

“In about three, four years, we’re gonna have excess cash, and it’s all gonna go there,” he said.

High Point went through a rebirth after he arrived, Qubein told The Assembly, and in that sense “it’s an 18-year-old university.” Before he leaves, he wants to secure the future.

“For 18 years, I went through hell,” he said. “But we are knocking at the door of heaven.”


Pam Kelley is a longtime Charlotte journalist. Her book, Money Rock: A Family’s Story of Cocaine, Race, and Ambition in the New South, is a 2023 North Carolina Reads book club selection. 

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Melanie Sill is a Triangle-based independent journalist and former top editor of The News & Observer, Sacramento Bee, and Southern California Public Radio-KPCC. She was founding executive director of the NC Local News Workshop at Elon University.

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