Engaging With For-Profits


June 13, 2013

I have this idea that people like me in traditional non-profits can learn some things from the for-profits. I also think that it is in everyone’s interest (both students and the for-profits themselves) to adopt some of the cultural norms and practices of traditional non-profits.  

The problem, as I see it, is that we don’t really understand each other.   For-profits should be more transparent, and we (traditional non-profit people) should be more open to listening. 

It is in this spirit that I reached out to Dr. Jennifer Stephens-Helm, VP, Institutional Research & Assessment at American Public University System (APUS). Jennifer has been with APUS since 2005, and is well-respected in higher ed circles for her work on institutional effectiveness, operations management, and strategic planning.

The questions below are mine – answers are from Jennifer.  

As you read, please ask yourself what else would you want to know about APUS?

How do you think we should be having a dialogue across the non-profit / for-profit sectors?  

What do you think we can learn from APUS and the other for-profits, and what can they learn from the non-profits?

I’m hoping that this interview (and others that I am hoping to conduct) will provide an opportunity for exchange between you and the leadership of our largest for-profits.

Question 1:  What is the size, reach and scale of APUS?

We were founded as American Military University (AMU) in 1991 by retired Marine Corps officer James P. Etter, to serve transient military learners with unique needs. Over the next 10 years, AMU greatly expanded its undergraduate- and graduate-level programs in response to demand from students seeking to prepare for military leadership roles and to transition to post-military careers. In 2002, AMU was reorganized into American Public University System (APUS), and American Public University was founded to serve a broader audience of motivated working adults with an emphasis on public service disciplines.

Question 2:  Who are your main students, and how many are full- and part-time? How many full-time and part-time faculty?

Working adults are our largest group of students, from all 50 states and over 100 countries, with an average age of 32 and who take an average of 3-4 courses annually. We have approximately 2,200 faculty worldwide, and growing, with roughly 80% part-time and 20% full-time.

Question 3:  For what degrees or subjects is APUS best-known?

APUS offers more than 170 online degree and certificate programs, and is nationally recognized for its intelligence studies program, with business administration, emergency and disaster management, homeland security and IT management also ranking among the most popular offerings.

Question 4:  How does APUS compare in size to University of Phoenix, Kaplan, and Capella?  

We are the nation’s largest provider of higher education to the U.S. Armed Forces, based on 2012 DoD-reported data on students using tuition assistance.  According to Eduventures’ Online Higher Education Market Update 2012/13, APUS ranks second to University of Phoenix in estimated online enrollment with approximately 124,000 students, and ahead of both Kaplan (48,000) and Capella (36,000). We logged total revenues of $313.5 million for the twelve months ended December 31, 2012, the substantial majority of which was tuition.

Question 5:  Why is it in the business interest of APUS to collaborate with non-profits on issues such as learning technology, course design, faculty training, etc?    

An institutional culture of transparency, innovation and agility transcends sector boundaries.  APUS has worked to advance this larger collaboration agenda by routinely sharing innovative ideas and best practices with all our higher education peers. Tax status does not, and should not, impact either the perceived quality or value of educational programs offered.   For-profits generally shine in developing systematic approaches to course design, faculty development, and student retention that positively impact student success.   We also have strong assessment processes and operate efficiently because of their focus on data-driven decision making. 

For its part, APUS uses several standard benchmarking instruments to measure, and transparently demonstrate, the efficacy of teaching and learning, including the National Survey of Student Engagement, Community of Inquiry, Educational Testing Service Major Field Test, and Proficiency Profile.  As a founding member of Transparency by Design, we have published information on a website, College Choices for Adults, on student demographics, completion rates, costs, survey ratings, and program-level outcome data.

Question 6:  What resources does APUS devote to such collaboration and transparency, and what are the risks of doing so? How is APUS currently collaborating with non-profits? 

Non-profits and for-profits need to enhance cross-sector interaction so that we can learn, and benefit, from each other. APUS is institutionally committed to doing so whenever, or wherever, such viable opportunities present themselves.  We see negligible risk in sharing many of our best practices externally, given our shared commitment to enhancing learning outcomes.  Our faculty and staff regularly participate in joint conference presentations, and serve on planning committees and boards, with our non-profit colleagues, including Sloan- C, National University Technology Network, and WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET), among several others. We are also active in the Sakai community where we have shared our LMS enhancements with other member schools.

The Predictive Analytics Reporting Framework brings together 16 public, proprietary (including APUS) and traditional two- and four-year WCET member institutions to identify points of student loss and improve student retention for online degree programs. With a total of nearly 10 million anonymized student and institutional course-level records, PAR offers a unique multi-institutional lens for examining dimensions of student success.  More recently, APUS has also partnered with the University Professional & Continuing Education Association (UPCEA) and University of Illinois - Springfield to examine how massive open online courses (MOOCs) could integrate into traditional degree completion programs, and how students succeed at higher education institutions after having received credit for a MOOC.

Let me give some well-deserved credit to other progressive schools, where credit is due:

  • The University of Illinois – Springfield’s free MOOC on the Emancipation Proclamation for students, and  project to examine the outcomes of students who transfer in credit-bearing MOOCs.
  • The University of West Georgia’s annual Distance Learning Administration conference, peer review publication and distance education certification program.
  • Alverno College’s curriculum integrating the worlds of work, family and civic community.
  • Indiana University/Purdue University Indianapolis’s annual Assessment Institute.

Question 7:  What are the main things APUS has learned from these efforts?  What have the non-profits learned from APUS?

At APUS, we have developed many of our assessment processes and frameworks based on learning about the great work of non-profit schools. Although some of our systems and processes may differ, we share the common goal to ensure success for our students. Their solid and well- established assessment processes and structures work well for their students.  We have assimilated their research and relevant case studies to assist us in establishing our own assessment infrastructure that is tailored to fit our mission, vision, and core values.

Our non-profit colleagues, in turn, have often praised us for our willingness to share best practices related to streamlining administrative processes through the use of technology, using ”big” data mining and other statistical techniques for improved learning outcomes and online student retention, and maintaining quality and affordability for our online students. The benefits of such collaboration to APUS have also extended beyond the classroom to such critical policy issues such as state licensure and to such other shared concerns as stemming online federal student aid abuse.   Wherever for-profits and non-profits find ways to work together, the proverbial rising tide truly floats all boats.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top