South University’s history began in Savannah, Georgia in 1899 with the establishment of Draughon’s Practical Business College. Founded by Dr. John Draughon, the institution focused on teaching the fundamentals needed by successful businesses including accounting, banking, shorthand, bookkeeping and typewriting. Originally located in the Masonic Lodge building on the corner of Savannah’s Liberty and Whitaker Streets, the College was moved several times to accommodate growing enrollment before settling into the Atlantic Mutual Building.
The college was acquired by the South family in 1974, and the institution’s name was changed to Draughon’s Junior College. Shortly after, John T. South, III left his Atlanta banking career to join the college’s administration. Under his more than 40 years of leadership, the institution would grow from a one-location junior college in Savannah to a doctoral-level university with more than a dozen campuses around the U.S. and alumni from all 50 states and beyond.
The institution’s geographic growth began with the addition of a campus in West Palm Beach, Florida. In an effort to more strategically align its institutional name with its mission, the institution changed its name to South College on October 21, 1986. With an eye toward the future, South College’s administration began planning the addition of more advanced and varied degree programs and campus expansions.
In 1996, the institution began offering four-year degrees with the addition of the Bachelor of Business Administration degree. The next year, South College reorganized its administrative structure and formed the School of Business. Understanding that healthcare would be a growing and in-demand career field, South College also founded the School of Health Professions and began offering an associate’s degree in Physical Therapist Assistant. During this time the college’s geographical footprint expanded to include a campus in Montgomery, Alabama.
The first 15 years of the 21st century would prove to be the most transformative time in the institution’s history. Online classes, more campuses, the addition of advanced degree programs, and a University designation would continue to propel South forward.
South College became South University on December 21, 2001, after the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) accredited the institution to award master’s degrees. The Master of Science in Physician Assistant degree was added as South University’s first post-baccalaureate degree program that same year.
South University expanded by opening its fourth campus in Columbia, South Carolina in January of 2002. The University also took a major step forward academically when it announced plans to offer a Doctor of Pharmacy degree program. SACSCOC approved the University’s plan to award doctoral degrees in December of 2002, making South University the first institution in the Savannah, Georgia area to offer a healthcare doctorate.
A South University education became available to students around the country with the introduction of web-based instruction in 2004. Online bachelor's degree programs in Business Administration and Information Technology were initially offered, while Bachelor of Science degree programs in Healthcare Management, Nursing, and Criminal Justice were added the next year.
Rapid expansion continued with the addition of South University’s fifth campus in Tampa, Florida in 2006 and the launch of four online master’s degree programs. The growing campus in Columbia also announced its move to the city’s eastside to accommodate its increasing enrollment.
A major library expansion was completed on the Savannah campus in 2007, and academic degree programs continued to be added at many of the university’s locations. This was also the year South University celebrated the graduation of its first fully-online students.
The University’s academic structure took an important step forward in 2008, when the Board of Trustees approved the creation of the College of Arts and Sciences, College of Business, College of Health Professions, and the College of Nursing. In 2009, the University continued to expand its academic offerings by adding a School of Pharmacy program to the Columbia campus.
This was also a time of continued campus growth and expansion. The University opened campus locations in Glen Allen (Richmond) and Virginia Beach, Virginia in 2009. The next year, the University announced the opening of its Novi, Michigan campus followed quickly by the announcement of a campus in Austin, Texas in 2011. In 2012, South University opened campuses in the Cleveland suburb of Warrensville Heights, Ohio and High Point, North Carolina.
The College of Theology was established in 2013, and enrolled its first Doctor of Ministry degree program students the next year. The College of Theology gained national attention in 2014 when NPR’s Marketplace program covered its first day of classes and noted the differences between the South University program and those offered by traditional seminaries.
The addition of the Doctor of Ministry program and Doctor of Occupational Therapy program meant South University was now designated as a Level VI institution by SACSCOC, a designation shared by only 113 SACSCOC accredited higher education institutions. The University’s commitment to excellence continued, and in 2014 SACSCOC reaffirmed South University’s accreditation for ten years with no recommendations.
In 2015, the Austin campus moved from its temporary facilities into its permanent 42,000 square-foot campus, and a new learning site was opened in Orlando, Florida. That same year, graduates from all 50 U.S. states, Puerto Rico, and Guam traveled to Savannah to take part in the June commencement ceremony. In all, more than 4,000 students graduated from South University that year, proving the scope of South University’s reach and educational influence across the U.S.