Distance Education: Tumultuous Today and Yesterday

Published April 25, 2017

Only a few years ago, for-profit colleges were on a roll.

They were innovators in online teaching (also called distance education), they gave adults a chance to get a degree or a certificate while still working, and they were making money. For-profits’ enrollment reached almost 10 percent of all postsecondary students.

Then, under pressure from the government, they began to falter. The Department of Education issued punitive regulations, and politicians, led by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), went after them for their aggressive recruitment practices and low graduation rates.

Two major schools were forced out of business: Corinthian Colleges in 2015 and ITT Technical Institute in 2016 (after 50 years of instruction). Only after Donald Trump was elected president, with his promise to reduce regulation, did the remaining schools see a rebound in their stock prices.

This pattern resembles the experience of another set of distance-education schools—the correspondence schools that thrived in the United States at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.

Their instruction papers, their students’ responses, and their teachers’ comments all traveled by U.S. mail. And like today’s for-profits, the world of education treated them as second-class citizens.

These correspondence schools were “big.” According to an expert in 1925, their enrollment was four times the enrollment in residential colleges. That may have been an exaggeration, but mail-order instruction became so ingrained in American life that Ellis Parker Butler wrote a series of comic novels about Philo Gubb, “correspondence school detective,” and Sinclair Lewis’s satirical novel Babbitt took humorous note of them.

But like today’s equivalents, the correspondence schools got little respect—even though they were providing education that most universities and colleges eschewed. Currently, for-profits provide the broad access to college that established universities talk about but rarely supply.

Back then, for-profits provided technical and practical education that colleges weren’t prepared to give—and for people who couldn’t attend college because of lack of money or because they lived in remote locations.

Like today’s for-profits, the correspondence schools were a mixed bag. Some offered well-organized instruction from texts written by known experts. Others were just selling books. And there were frauds. In 1905, The Washington Post wrote about schools claiming to be connected to the Civil Service Commission to obtain students who wanted to pass the civil-service exams.

The first correspondence school was formed in 1891 by Thomas J. Foster, editor of a mining journal, the Colliery Engineer. He started writing a column about mine safety, and the column turned into a correspondence course.

Within a few years, the International Correspondence Schools of Scranton, Pennsylvania was born. Among its many courses were architectural drawing, sign painting, bookkeeping, wallpaper design, coal-mining, and railroad engineering.

ICS was widely praised and spawned many imitators, some of which were innovative and of high quality, such as Christopher C. Brooks’ textile correspondence school (1898) and Arthur F. Sheldon’s salesmanship courses (1902).

Thomas Commerford Martin, who worked with Thomas Edison and founded the Electrical World and Engineer, spoke favorably about correspondence schools in 1898. He wrote, “It must be recognized that ‘going to school by mail’ has done much to take the place of the typical old-fashioned college and to assist the university in defining its grand ultimate function.”

Yet there was also suspicion. In 1899, Edgar Marburg, a professor of engineering at the University of Pennsylvania attempted to explain the “phenomenal” growth of these schools.

While he recognized the reason for the schools—”no provision has been made for the specific training of our youth for industrial and commercial pursuits”—he cautioned that the profit motive “throws the doors wide open to charlatanism.”

In 1925, a study by John Samuel Noffsinger hammered the nail into the coffin of the correspondence schools’ reputation. Without enumerating his claims, he said that “the majority of correspondence schools are not well equipped and still less conscientiously conducted,” and only a “small minority … give value.”

That assessment apparently led his sponsor, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, to give up on correspondence schools for adult education, and it froze in time the educated person’s view of those schools. Few historians have taken a second look.

Comparing the two periods of history shows some things do not change. When there is a need (a serious one in the 19th century, when the United States was in the midst of rapid industrialization), private entrepreneurs step in to fill it.

Many do so because they see profit opportunities, and that fact simply doesn’t sit well with most education experts.

As a Carnegie Corporation author wrote in 1935, “It seems a pity that there should be room—and even a need—in America for adult education for profit.” Wiping out that profit seems to have been a goal of established educators ever since.

[Originally Published at the Hill]