The American Public University System (APUS) traces its history to June 11, 1991 with the establishment of American Military University (AMU) in the Commonwealth of Virginia. AMU was founded by retired Marine Corps Major James P. Etter as a graduate school of military studies for the purpose of providing military officers an opportunity to earn an advanced degree in a discipline associated with their profession of arms.

AMU offered all of its programs exclusively through distance learning. At that time, it was one of the first American degree-granting institutions operating exclusively at a distance. This method was adopted to accommodate the special needs of military students who moved often and served under uncertain conditions associated with training, exercises, and extended deployments. Distance learning allowed them the flexibility and accessibility to continue their studies under these demanding conditions with an institution that followed them through mail, e-mail, phone, and fax around the globe.

The University began operations and accepting students in January 1993 with 18 graduate students registering for 22 courses in Land, Naval, or Air Warfare. AMU’s curriculum was gradually expanded to include related disciplines such as Unconventional Warfare, Civil War Studies, Intelligence, Defense Management, and National Security Studies.

In June 1995, AMU achieved initial accreditation with the Accrediting Commission of the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC). With this national accreditation, AMU students became eligible for Department of Defense Tuition Assistance Programs, the Veterans Administration Entitlement Programs, and federal and corporate tuition reimbursement benefits.

In January 1996, AMU introduced its undergraduate program with three initial areas of study: Military History, Military Management, and Intelligence Studies. These programs were intended to provide military personnel an opportunity to earn a relevant baccalaureate degree. Later, AMU began offering an Associate of Arts degree in General Studies to fulfill the needs of service members seeking a two-year degree. The University continued to expand its curriculum in response to the needs of its students and the military. Accordingly, programs such as Criminal Justice, Management, International Relations, Homeland Security, Security Management, Transportation and Logistics Management, Sports Management, Emergency and Disaster Management, and, later, a full range of liberal arts programs were introduced to meet the diverse interests and aspirations of the University’s growing student body. With these new degree programs, AMU began attracting students from professions outside the military, primarily those in public service with law enforcement, fire and rescue, emergency planning, government, and defense contractors.

In 1998, AMU began transitioning its programs and services from a correspondence format to online to leverage the accessibility of online electronic classrooms, administrative services, and learning support facilities. At this time, AMU also outsourced its bookstore and textbook fulfillment services to an industry leader and began developing its proprietary student information system, Partnership At a Distance, or PAD. This system enabled students to apply for admission, complete an online orientation, register for courses, check degree progress, and apply for graduation from the convenience of their home or office with constant access to these online services.

In 2002, AMU expanded into the American Public University System and established American Public University to serve the educational needs of the public service community. Adopting the slogan of “Educating Those Who Serve”, the APUS Mission expanded “to serve the nation’s military and public service community with superior, relevant, and affordable distance learning programs which prepare them for leadership and service in a diverse, global society.” With this organizational and mission expansion, the University System continued to expand and refine its curriculum to meet the special educational needs of its diverse student body.

In 2007, the APUS Mission evolved into “to educate the nation’s military and public service communities by providing respected, relevant, affordable, and student-focused online programs, which prepare them for service and leadership in a diverse, global society” to more accurately define the institution’s charge.

APUS was established in West Virginia, located within the region accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (NCA). Accordingly, APUS underwent the process of accreditation achieving this status in May 2006. The NCA's Higher Learning Commission is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

Today, APUS and its member institutions, American Military University and American Public University, serve more than 70,000 military and public service professionals with relevant distance learning programs. APUS serves students in all U.S. states and territories and in more than 100 foreign countries. APUS is appropriately a wholly-owned subsidiary of a publicly-owned company, American Public Education, Incorporated (APEI) which issued an initial public offering of its stock in November 2007 and is now trading on the NASDAQ as APEI.