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The Business of Education: Home Study at Columbia University and the University of Wisconsin in the 1920s and 1930s


by Robert L Hampel — 2010

Background: Correspondence schools abounded in early 20th-century America. Several hundred for-profit vendors drew the vast majority of the annual enrollments, which peaked at one half million in the mid-1920s. Dozens of well-known universities created home study departments to expand their “extension” work. The handful of good studies of the origins of distance education falls short of what we need to understand this popular alternative to traditional schooling.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: In 1930, Abraham Flexner ridiculed home study at Columbia, and, to a lesser extent, Wisconsin and Chicago. His denunciation of the mercenary spirit of home study reverberates in contemporary discussions of the entrepreneurial aspirations of American universities. This article places the business practices of home study at Columbia and Wisconsin alongside the work of proprietary schools to see if Flexner’s criticisms were accurate.

Research Design: The article compares the advertising, sales, and collection practices of Columbia, Wisconsin, and the for-profit outfits in the 1920s and 1930s. The archival sources for Columbia and Wisconsin include annual reports, financial statements, letters to and from the directors of home study, and other documents. For the private schools, the verbatim transcripts of the annual meetings of their trade association are especially valuable.

Conclusions: Flexner’s critique is misleading. Columbia avoided the excesses that swelled the income and marred the reputations of many for-profit schools. Wisconsin did even more to distance itself from the proprietary firms. The article ends with ruminations on the options available to universities when they undertake work in a field dominated by the private sector.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 112 Number 9, 2010, p. 2496-2571
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16045, Date Accessed: 10/18/2017 8:11:37 PM

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About the Author
  • Robert Hampel
    University of Delaware
    E-mail Author
    ROBERT HAMPEL, interim director of the School of Education at the University of Delaware, is the secretary/treasurer of the History of Education Society. Bob’s current research explores the history of what he calls “shortcuts to learning,” various ways Americans have tried to make education faster and easier. His previous articles and books examined a range of topics in 19th- and 20th-century American history, especially the evolution of high schools since 1940.
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