This article is Part 2 of a two-part series on the digital transformation of educational institutions and solving two of the Grand Challenges in higher education: reputation and relevance. This article discusses reputation and how American Public University System (APUS) has met that challenge.
I believe that institutions that align their goals and objectives with their mission are always in a position to enhance their reputation. Quality, affordability, and relevance have been three of the hallmarks of the APUS mission from day one. As other institutions consider a digital transformation as a means of achieving the Grand Challenge of Reputation and Relevance, I suggest that they keep their goals and objectives aligned with their mission.
As I mentioned earlier, the first students matriculating at AMU had to pay for their degree program because we had not yet received our accreditation. Most accreditors have criteria that require that an institution have students who are enrolled and, in some cases, graduated, before they will accredit the institution.
For that reason, our program(s) had to be relevant. Providing quality curriculum, courses, and instructors led to satisfied students. Satisfied students referred new students to AMU. Over time, the continued development of additional, relevant programs as well as the continued review process led to a reputation for quality for the students that AMU served.
Through the evolution of AMU to APUS and the growth and progression of APUS, its leadership examined ways in which its quality and reputation could be improved. Early on, a decision was made to pursue regional accreditation. In the early years of accreditation, traditional colleges and universities were accredited by regional accreditors, familiar with the rules, regulations, and tradition in their areas of the country. Institutions that educated via correspondence or at multiple locations that crossed state lines were accredited by national accreditors.
Since the regional accreditors accredited some of the institutions with high academic standards, many employers, regulators, and students assumed that regional accreditation was the gold standard. In 2002, an application was submitted to the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) of the North Central Association and in 2006, APUS was initially accredited.
Institutional accreditation is not the only recognition of quality. As APUS grew other degree programs, its leadership team knew that some professions and industries looked for another sign of quality, specialized accreditation. Specialty accreditation is generally not required by institutional accreditors, but if an institution has specialty accreditation for a program or programs, institutional accreditors will want to know that the institution’s program(s) is in good standing.
The first specialty accreditation at APUS was for its business programs through the Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP). In some cases, the pursuit of specialty accreditation has not been easy for APUS, given its status as an institution operating wholly online. At the same time, the achievement and recognition has been rewarding for the institution, its students, and its graduates.
As an early adopter of online education, APUS had to continually find ways to compare the quality of its online courses and instructions to the changes adopted by others. The Sloan Consortium, founded in 1992, was created as a non-profit collaborative to encourage and support institutions in building successful and quality online programs. By participating in Sloan Consortium workshops and its regional and annual meetings, APUS faculty, directors, deans, and leaders learned what other colleges and universities were doing to enhance the quality of their online courses and programs.
Sloan changed its name to the Online Learning Consortium (OLC) in 2014. Over the years, APUS has been an active participant and has received five Effective Practice Awards recognizing innovative ideas that APUS has developed and shared with the broader higher education community through the OLC.
In 2009, APUS received the Gomory Award from Sloan, recognizing it for its institutional quality and practices for online learning. While its participation with the OLC may not be directly recognized by students, the participation and recognition by the OLC has enabled APUS to attract faculty and administrators interested in the pursuit of improving the quality of online education.
Embracing online education at an early time in its development has led to interesting partnerships for APUS. In 2001, a decision was made to provide textbooks to undergraduate students at no charge to them through a textbook grant. That decision forced APUS to focus on the cost of college textbooks.
Initially, a partnership was established with MBS, a subsidiary of Borders, to distribute new and used textbooks to its students. Understanding APUS’s focus on keeping textbook costs from spiraling out of control, the MBS partnership led to customized textbook publishing as well as the negotiation of some of the first electronic (e-book) textbook contracts.
As e-book textbook offerings grew, APUS explored the Open Educational Resources (OER) community for resource materials for its online classes. In return, APUS has contributed digital materials that it has developed to that community.
All of APUS’s undergraduate courses have textbooks provided to students at no cost. At the graduate level, APUS faculty continue to search for OER course materials that can lower the textbook costs to students.
Academic journals in higher education can be the penultimate place for researchers and Ph.D.’s to publish. As APUS continued its quest for quality, its leadership noticed that there were few opportunities for peer-reviewed articles about online education (OLC and Merlot being two long-term options). APUS later partnered with the Policy Studies Organization to offer its first peer-reviewed journal, the Journal of Internet Learning, later retitled the Journal of Online Learning Research and Practice.
APUS and PSO subsequently added additional peer-reviewed journals to include the International Journal of Open Educational Resources (IJOER), the Journal of Global Security and Intelligence Studies, and the Journal of Space Education & Strategic Applications. As APUS increases the quality of its programs and its faculty, sponsoring these academic journals are helpful to improving its reputation for quality.
In 2006, APUS joined the newly-organized American College and University Presidents Climate (ACUPCC) Commitment as a charter signatory. The goal of the broader organization was to have colleges lead the way toward carbon neutrality by 2050 by initiating or increasing their energy efficiency and resource consumption.
After signing the commitment, the next three buildings that were constructed on APUS’s Charles Town, WV, campus were LEEDS-certified as Gold, Platinum, and Silver. The land on which the buildings were constructed was a former Brownfields site. A deserted fertilizer plant was located on an adjacent lot that was purchased by APUS, environmentally restored and landscaped for future expansion. A solar panel-covered parking lot, the largest privately funded in the state of West Virginia at the time, was constructed to provide power to the building, later certified as Platinum.
APUS received recognition for its initiatives from the ACUPCC and later the state of West Virginia for its Brownfield initiatives. Not surprisingly, student enrollments in the APUS Environmental Studies program increased.
Through all of these initiatives, APUS continued to focus on its mission and its students. With a highly variable cost model enhanced by its online, digital capabilities and its focus on delivering a quality education at an affordable cost, APUS grew the number of students it served. From 2001 to 2020, undergraduate tuition only increased by $35/credit hour. A result of keeping tuition at an affordable rate is that approximately 72% of APUS’s alumni have earned a degree without incurring debt through APUS or Federal Student Aid programs.
Another outcome of the low cost and the degree relevancy was APUS’s ranking in the first attempt at ranking 4,529 colleges and universities by return on investment. Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce researchers issued a report in November 2019 that ranked APUS as the 95th highest Net Present Value for its graduates 20 years after graduation and 93rd highest at 30 years and 40 years after graduation.
These rankings were in the top 2% of all institutions. APUS earned that ranking by keeping the cost of a degree affordable and by offering degrees that were relevant to the current or future career path for its graduates’ earnings.
As evidenced in the examples I have cited in my two articles, improving reputation and relevance is not something that happens overnight for any academic institution. In a society where information and content grow exponentially every year, a digital transformation may assist an institution in accelerating its efforts to remain relevant as well as to improve and expand its reputation nationally and globally.