Nova Southeastern University doesn’t have much of a name outside of southern Florida, where it has a central campus in Fort Lauderdale and a patchwork of satellites spread across the state, some no larger than office buildings. But it made national news last month for a staggering statistic: Last year, graduate students there took out more than half a billion dollars in student loans, more than almost any other school in America.
Despite its low profile, Nova has become a powerhouse in graduate education and has been particularly active in enrolling minority students, who make up almost 50% of its graduates. The school says it issues more graduate degrees to Latino students than any other institution in the country.
Alongside these numbers is a giant pile of student debt. On a list of schools whose graduate students borrowed the most, Nova Southeastern had the country’s second-highest tally, after Walden University, an online school run by the world’s largest for-profit college company. Below Nova Southeastern on the list is the University of Phoenix.
Nova Southeastern’s quiet rise to become one of the largest grad schools in the country — it now has more than 20,000 graduate students — is, in some ways, unlikely. Phoenix and Walden have swelled to their size at the pressures of investors and with the backing of multibillion-dollar for-profit corporations. Nova, which calls itself NSU, is a nonprofit. It has little fundraising power, no endowment to speak of, and a tiny undergraduate presence — meaning it has no real presence in the rankings released by U.S. News and World Report, the pre-eminent leaderboard for universities.
But those characteristics also put NSU squarely into a new class of American universities: private nonprofits that have grown from bit players into major presences in higher education. Schools like NSU, Liberty University, which now enrolls more than 40,000 students, and Western Governors University, which has almost 60,000, have grown using similar models.
Unlike the other class of nonprofits on last month's list — Columbia, the University of Southern California, and New York University — Nova and its ilk don't charge unusually high amounts for their degrees. They muscled their way onto the list mostly by virtue of their sheer size.
NSU, Liberty, and WGU compete directly with for-profits schools for nontraditional students, offering easier enrollment and degrees that are tailored directly to work goals. And their offerings are cheaper, and usually carry more weight with employers. Along with NSU, Liberty University — a religious school founded by Jerry Falwell — and Western Governors have all taken advantage of the surge in demand for online education. WGU is all-online, and almost 70% of Liberty's students get online degrees. Almost 60% of NSU's graduate degrees are online.
“They’ve really managed to grow by carving out this niche for themselves,” said Dennis Kramer, the director of the Institute of Higher Education at the University of Florida.
NSU’s niche, in short, is graduate education: practical, professionally oriented degrees offered to local working adults, especially black and Latino students. Many, though not all, of NSU’s offerings have lower barriers to entry than at public universities and private schools. Most are concentrated in areas like education and the health sciences, as well as niche professional master’s degrees. Most are also unsubsidized, meaning students have to take out federal loans to finance them.
In 2013–2014, NSU students took out, on average, $23,000 in federal loans — higher than at the University of Phoenix, where students took out $13,000, and at Walden, where the total was around $17,000. NSU’s average loan balance was in the neighborhood of prestigious private nonprofits like NYU and USC, all of which hovered around $25,000.
The average loan balance at the University of Florida, $22,000, was similar to NSU’s, too. But federal data shows that just 50% of University of Florida’s 15,500 graduate students took out unsubsidized federal loans; at NSU, 75% of students did.
NSU’s specialties, not coincidentally, line up perfectly with broader trends in American education: Growth in graduate enrollment; increasing demand from employers for graduate degrees on top of bachelor’s; growth in college attainment among black and Latino students; a surge in demand for healthcare workers; and, not least, a lifting of federal caps on graduate student borrowing.
NSU has been able to adapt so well, said Brandon Hensler, the school's public relations director, because it focuses almost exclusively on graduate students, and has since its founding in the early 1960s, when it began as loosely joined conglomerate of local graduate programs.
NSU awards more graduate degrees to Hispanic students than any other institution in the country, according to the university. Twenty-four percent of its graduate students are Latino, and 24% are black; 34% are white. Their average age is around 33, Hensler said.
"They have a very positive message that they’re providing access to minorities, which are an underserved population here," said Kramer, whose own school, the University of Florida, has 10% Latino and 6% black graduate students despite a state population that is 24% Latino and 17% black.
But, Kramer said, there are trade-offs. "There's also the fact that as a private institution with a limited endowment, they have increased tuition costs. It's good to to provide access, but we also have to make sure we aren't saddling minority students with higher levels of debt" than their white counterparts.
NSU points to its very low student loan default rates as evidence that their students are not overburdened with debt. But graduate student loan default rates are traditionally always much lower than those of undergraduate loans: Those with graduate degrees are more likely to be employed in better-paying jobs.
Education, business, and health sciences degrees still dominate NSU's offerings. But the school has recently begun to set its sights on another trend in graduate education: niche master's degrees, backed by the idea, Hensler said, that "the master's degree is the new bachelor's degree in terms of advancing your career." They've begun to offer programs in tightly focused areas like conflict resolution and student affairs.
"We've really been focused on adapting quickly to the market, as opposed to large state schools" that can take years to add new programs, Hensler said. "In terms of, the master's in student affairs, there's a need for that, and we recognized it."
Mario Vazquez is a doctoral student at NSU's education school. A military veteran, he'd attended a patchwork of schools for his bachelor's and master's degrees and was working as a high school teacher when he enrolled at NSU last year. Now an academic adviser at a local college, Vazquez says he got his new job thanks to NSU. He hopes to become a university administrator, where a doctoral degree like the one he'll get from NSU is "basically required now."
"The degree, and what we learn, it's very transferrable to my job and to higher education leadership," Vazquez said.
As it expands, NSU has begun to build up an army of alumni in southern Florida. Vazquez said he recently spoke on the phone with the mayor of North Miami, who has a doctorate in osteopathic medicine from NSU. And when Vazquez worked in Miami public schools, his boss, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, was an NSU grad, too.
"You see how it can open doors," Vazquez said of his degree. "There are so many of us."