After a nearly yearlong search, the American Public University System has named its next president, a leader it believes has the credentials that mesh with its mission to serve online students. But will he be able to help repair some of the image problems that have plagued for-profits over the past few years and overcome more stringent rules on aid from the Department of Education?
APUS, which includes both American Military University and American Public University, hopes CEO Nuno Fernandes can bring some of the success he enjoyed leading higher education platform Ilumno to its two online institutions. In the past decade, Ilumno has helped educate more than 200,000 students in Latin America and retained them at a 90% clip—strong numbers in areas often challenged to provide postsecondary opportunities.
“Nuno has an outstanding track record of combining his extensive experience in education, business and technology to make quality higher education more affordable and accessible, which aligns completely with our values and vision,” said Frank Ball, chairman of the APUS Board of Trustees. “I welcome Nuno to join us in moving APUS into the future.”
Fernandes will replace acting president Dr. Katherine Zatz at APUS, which has seen several leadership changes over the past six years. Zatz had stepped in for outgoing president and former Kaplan University leader Wade Dyke, who left in November 2021 after a year and a half. Before that, Wallace Boston had served two terms, sandwiched around a stint from Karan Powell, who is now interim vice president of academic affairs at Saint Francis University. Fernandes is expected to start on Sept. 1, and he is excited about the possibilities.
“I’m honored to have been selected to serve APUS as we continue to make affordable, high-quality online higher education more accessible to populations globally,” Fernandes said. “APUS has such a storied history. I look forward to making APUS’ value proposition more known and relevant in the U.S. marketplace and beyond.”
Fernandes arrives at a pivotal moment for the for-profit American Public Education, Inc., and other for-profits as they stare down increased scrutiny from ED, particularly those that purport to serve veterans and military members. The American Military University, for example, does not have any tangible military connection other than the students who attend. And while it may be affordable (averaging $11,916 after aid) and accessible for its 88,000-plus students (the National Center for Education Statistics lists 48,200), there have been questions raised about its outcomes on completion and students’ ability to pay back loans.
In 2018, the APUS settled a lawsuit with the state of Massachusetts over its targeting of veterans with GI Bills and failure to disclose data on graduation rates, in which it agreed to amend its disclosure policies. In January, it had a potential agreement to serve online students with the California College Community system reversed by then chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley. At the time, Veterans Education Success President Carrie Wofford said of the deal: “California never should have signed a contract with a predatory for-profit college that was sued by law enforcement for high-pressure enrollment tactics and failing to disclose job prospects to student veterans and military students. We applaud Chancellor Oakley for protecting students from fraud.”
A study done by the Veterans Education Project, which defended for-profit institutions in some areas but not in others, showed that while not exceptional, the APUS does have a 42% completion rate among military students, which is light years better than the bottom 20% of less-selective public institutions (22.7%). It also does well on reported median earnings after graduation among those individuals at $43,800, nearly doubling the outcomes of the least selective publics. APUS also had its accreditation extended by the Higher Learning Commission beyond 2030. On the flip side, its students default on their student loans at about the same rates as those that are least selective but do so far more often than those who attend the for-profit University of Phoenix, Ashford University and Trident International University. They also struggle with repayments at just 22.9%.
One of the keys to the future for for-profits, especially those that serve veterans, is the enhanced 90/10 rule from the Department of Education, which means that they can’t skirt that 10% designated strictly for outside funding sources.
“Prior to the proposed change, a loophole led some institutions to aggressively target [military] populations because every $1 brought in from these students meant they could receive $9 more in Department of Education aid without needing to secure any private investment,” ED said in a statement, referring to the GI Bill. “The proposed changes would strengthen the 90/10 calculation by ensuring institutions cannot evade the metric, including by counting revenue from the sale of institutional loans, income-share agreements, or similar alternative financing options.”
Will Fernandes help ensure that APUS meets that goal and others? Despite the pushback it has received, APUS remains the most popular education choice for veterans because of its flexibility. It serves a population of mostly white students, but 87% have military ties, including a large number of active duty members. The institutions, which have frozen tuition in each of the past three years, offer more than 200 degree and certificate programs, mainly to bachelor’s degree seekers, led by security/IT, STEM, health sciences, business and humanities.
Elsewhere: The Hartford Courant is reporting that Steve Kaplan, the president at the University of New Haven, is leaving the institution because of “university politics.” Kaplan was set to take on the role of chancellor and CEO under a new dual leadership structure where Sheahon Zenger would be interim president while the board looked for a permanent one over the next year. Zenger had been the university’s director of athletics and recreation. But the Courant said a letter it obtained from its board of governors showed that unhappy faculty pressed Kaplan to exit early. Kaplan had been considering retirement before the change. The university has issued no comment or announcement on Kaplan’s decision.