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Teaching 50,000 Students Online: APEI CEO Wally Boston (Part 2)

Posted on Thursday, Sep 24th 2009

SM: How was accreditation handled?

WB: From 1996 through 2000 the university had steady growth. Right around 2001 Jim made the decision that he wanted to achieve regional accreditation. The university was accredited nationally prior, but there is a difference in prestige between national accreditation and regional accreditation.

Jim began looking for investors to help him meet financial requirements of regional accrediting bodies. About the same time that he found a large private equity firm, ABS Capital, to become an investor. He had a search for a CFO, at which time he hired me. I started in 2002 and we began our current quest to improve the university to the point that we could achieve regional accreditation.

We also restructured and went from being American Military University to being the American Public University System where we had two virtual brands, American Military University and American Public University.

SM: By this time there were already 4,000 students associated with AMU right?

WB: We were incorporated in 1991 but did not take our first student until January of 1993. The first class had 22 students. We increased from 22 in 1993 to 4,400 by 2002.

SM: How did military students become to know about it? Did the military support it?

WB: Jim did it through the school of hard knocks. He told me that for his very first class he did not have any money to advertise. Instead he printed up a pamphlet for the school and put it under the windshield wipers of cars parked in lots for commuter trains to Washington. He identified cars that had military stickers on them, so he targeted those cars. Being a former military person, he was able to recognize which cars had the right stickers. He then just crossed his fingers that he would get 20 students, which was his breakeven point to get enough students to start his first class.

SM: What went on between having 20 students and having 4,400? That would not happen with pamphlets alone.

WB: He was an instructor at Marine Corps University during his last assignment in the military, and he did that for several years. Through that assignment he was able to meet instructors at the Army War College and the Naval Postgraduate School. His first program was a masters degree in military studies focusing on either air warfare, land warfare, naval warfare, or amphibious warfare. Those all related to the branches of service. Strategically that was significant because he had instructors who were able to work for him part time, and they were good instructors who who had established their reputations by teaching at the military war colleges. He had very good programs. We learned through word of mouth the students enjoyed the programs. Military war colleges have very restrictive and fixed enrollment. Not everyone who applies to study is admitted.

SM: So the program grew entirely on word of mouth?

WB: Word of mouth carried the program for a while, but Jim also went to the library and checked out books on marketing to see if there was a way to market without spending money. He found that you could market by building your business through referrals.

SM: It seems very difficult to grow to the level it did entirely on word of mouth.

WB: The military environment is a lot different than the regular consumer environment. There are many professional groups that are made up of military members. If just one officer promotes the program in one of those groups, there are 50 or 100 other officers there who hear about the experience firsthand. Word travels very quickly inside a military community. Eventually advertisements were placed in newspapers at local military bases, and the education offices on bases would also post pamphlets of available programs for students.

This segment is part 2 in the series : Teaching 50,000 Students Online: APEI CEO Wally Boston
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