For-profit American Public U strikes transfer agreement with California Community Colleges

Dive Brief:

  • The California Community Colleges system has signed a transfer agreement with American Public University System, a for-profit group that operates American Public University and American Military University. 
  • Under the agreement, students who graduate from the California system’s degree transfer program can go on to earn a bachelor’s degree in 38 academic areas at American Military University and American Public University. They will transfer with junior status and without losing credits.
  • The deal quickly generated criticism that California’s community colleges are working with a for-profit institution with a history of poor student outcomes. But system leaders say students were already transferring to the for-profit system and that the new deal ensures they receive credit for their community college work.

Dive Insight:

The American Public University System has historically catered to U.S. active military members and veterans. But its owner, for-profit operator American Public Education Inc., has begun to expand its footprint in the last couple of years. 

It last year moved to acquire Rasmussen University to grow its pre-licensure nursing programs. In August it agreed to purchase Graduate School USA, which trains employees of the federal government. 

The agreement comes as public institutions have tried to build out educational pathways for working adult students and nontraditional students — sometimes by dealing with for-profit providers. Some flagship universities have expanded their online offerings by snapping up for-profit schools, including Purdue University with its purchase of Kaplan University in 2018 and the University of Arizona’s acquisition of Ashford University last year.

In California, a bill signed in July strengthened transfer pathways between California’s community colleges and its two four-year public systems. Students are guaranteed admission to a University of California or California State University school of their choosing if they complete an associate degree within two years at a state community college. 

Now, students who earned an associate transfer degree at one of the 116 California community colleges can also move to an American Public University System institution and work toward an online bachelor’s degree. Some of the most popular of those programs are criminal justice, accounting and public health. 

“We’re excited to offer so much depth and choice to graduates of California’s community colleges so they can pursue their purpose,” American Public University System President Wade Dyke said in a statement. “This agreement furthers our long-standing commitment to helping learners of all backgrounds succeed while maximizing the return on their educational investment.”

The announcement drew disapproval from some higher education pundits, who argued American Public U posts poor student outcomes.

The American Public University System maintained only a 19% graduation rate for first-time students over eight years, according to federal data, with more than 40% of students withdrawing and 32% transferring.

Of students who transferred into the American Public University System, 22% graduated in eight years. 

The community college system’s agreement with American Public University is one of nearly 60 it has signed with transfer partners, Daisy Gonzales, California Community Colleges acting chancellor, said in an emailed statement. 

Between 300 and 400 students transfer from the community colleges to the American Public University system annually, and “it is an important priority” they receive full credit for their courses, Gonzales said. The American Public University System is required under the agreement to report student outcomes for the community college transfers annually, she said. 

“We continue to seek new transfer partnerships that will provide our students with assurances that their work at our community colleges will count toward their bachelor’s degree, embrace competency-based education and provide the flexibility that working students need,” Gonzales said. 

The American Public University System has a three-decade track record of emphasizing affordability and accessibility, a spokesperson for the for-profit said in an email.

“As a school that has historically made transfer credits a priority, APUS agrees that it’s important to ensure students receive full transfer credit as they pursue bachelor’s degrees,” the spokesperson said.

Some for-profit institutions have come under fire for misleading students or maintaining poor outcomes, saddling students with debt. The Obama administration cracked down on these schools, tightening regulations that former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos later repealed.

The Biden administration has once again stepped up scrutiny of for-profit colleges. Recently, the Federal Trade Commission sent notices to 70 major for-profit schools, alerting them they could be fined for deceptive practices. The notices did not find any of the institutions guilty of wrongdoing.

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