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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.

Early-20th-century American universities exasperated Abraham Flexner, an influential educator and philanthropist. After he published a searing critique of medical schools, Flexner often lampooned the comprehensive scope of prominent universities. What higgledy-piggledy affairs they are, he wrote to Harvard professor Paul Hanus, so wonderful in some respects, so childish and cheap in others!1 In a 1925 magazine article, Flexner called the typical university an educational department store containing a kindergarten [lab school] at one end, and Nobel Prize winners . . . at the other, with all possible variety and forms of schooling and training in between, and a mail order annex for the sale of correspondence courses. (Bonner 2002, 196). Business schools, journalism classes, and education departments relied on pseudo-scientific hocus-pocus and trivial tiddledewinks rather than trust common sense and on-the-job experience to give students what they needed.2  But of all the offenses in higher education, none agitated Flexner as much as correspondence courses, also known as home study, the  precursor of contemporary distance education.  In his 1930 book, Universities: American, English, German, Flexner excoriated Columbia, and, to a lesser extent, Wisconsin and Chicago. What the three largest and most prestigious collegiate vendors of home study considered an altruistic service was, in his opinion, just the opposite. The whole thing is business, a lucrative way to bamboozle gullible students who believed that home study was as valuable as traditional education (Flexner 1930, 144, 147).  

Columbias administrators envisioned home study as a form of public service, not as a business. It would win good will for the university by showing that an elite private university took seriously the educational needs of thousands of men and women unable to attend traditional courses held during the day. Correspondence work had been undertaken by several dozen public land grant universities, but in New York, no public or private university had done so before World War I. Columbia had offered summer sessions and evening extension courses for nonmatriculated students, so the start of home study in 1919 was justified to skeptical Columbia faculty as a logical continuation of popular initiatives begun a dozen years earlier (Burrell 1954).  

Flexners widely quoted criticisms of Columbia home study still appear in books on the commercial activities of contemporary universities (Bok 2003; Kirp 2003; Noble 2001). His scathing remarks are cited without questioning their accuracy. But apart from a laudatory eight-page chapter in a commissioned history of adult education at Columbia, a chapter that relied entirely on the published annual reports of the university (Burrell 1954), no one has reexamined this aspect of Columbias history and the larger issues it poses about the distinctions and the similarities between education and business in early-20th-century universities.  

In this article, I draw from various archives to compare Columbia with the true businesses in this field: the for-profit correspondence schools. They had the lions share of the annual enrollments, which peaked at approximately one half million in the mid-1920s (Noffsinger 1926). The largest proprietary firm, the International Correspondence Schools, alone attracted more students each year than all university home study departments (Watkinson 1996; Reeves 1933). If Columbia home study was as mercenary as Flexner alleged, then we should know whether it adopted the  practices of the proprietary vendors.

We will see that Columbia modified rather than copied the three essential strategies of successful proprietary outfits: brazen advertising, aggressive salesmanship, and the enforcement of installment payment contracts. Columbia avoided the excesses that swelled the income and marred the reputations of many for-profit schools. From the verbatim transcripts of meetings of the trade association of the proprietary schools, I will sketch the often unsavory and sometimes illegal tactics that far exceeded what Columbia did.  

Columbia might have muted the criticism if it had done even more to distance itself from the proprietary schools. I will argue that home study at the University of Wisconsin, the largest supplier of university home study in the first half of the 20th century, did just that, rejecting commercial practices more forcefully than Columbia. But as a land grant university with close ties to public schools throughout the state, Wisconsin enjoyed important advantages unavailable to Columbia, so it is unlikely that Columbia could have duplicated what happened 800 miles away. In the final section of the article, I build on the particulars of the Columbia and Wisconsin stories to consider the options available to a university when it undertakes work in a field dominated by the private sector.


Yes, I can see how a lot of these courses might interest you, George Babbitt told his son Ted after listening to him read dozens of advertisements for instruction in music, public speaking, boxing, crime detection, and other fare, including osteo-vitalic medicine and Hindu vibratory breathing. For Ted, the courses offered all kinds of stuff that would come in handy, unlike his high school curriculum, with its old-fashioned junk by Milton and Shakespeare and Wordsworth and all these has-beens. George Babbitt empathized. Many of the beguiling ads impressed him. He liked the idea that efficiency experts rather than bookworms and impractical theorists had streamlined learning, but he warned Ted that advertisers, I mean some advertisers, exaggerate (Lewis 1922, 7785).

Sinclair Lewiss novel featured fictitious and outlandish advertisements, but he accurately conveyed the breathtaking tone of the typical correspondence school ad. For every problem imaginable, there was a mail-order solution. Spectacular financial gains awaited the new student, with white-collar professions such as accounting within his reach. With so much riding on alluring ads to spark interest, it is not surprising that advertising copywriters either founded (U.S. School of Music) or cofounded (Charles Atlas) several prosperous schools (Hampel 2009).

Ads for all kinds of products in the 1920s promised success or at least progress (Marchand 1985), but the correspondence school hype often crossed the line between enthusiasm and misrepresentation. The Federal Trade Commission issued an average of 20 cease-and-desist orders in the late 1920s and 1930s to stifle a wide range of misleading enticements in proprietary schools ads: quick promotions and huge pay raises, massive job vacancies, bogus special tuition discounts, false limited time offers, specious scholarships, the word free for items covered by the fee, ads in the newspapers help wanted columns, and other deceptive practices (Noffsinger 1938). The three largest schools received cease-and-desist orders, and a variety of exuberant ads run by other schools were described by a speaker at the 1931 annual meeting of the National Home Study Council (NHSC hereafter), the trade association formed in 1926 by the most reputable schools. Manny Haas, an officer of the National Radio Institute and former vaudeville publicity director, began with his own schools trashy ad that promised $2,400 annual salaries after easy lessons in radio repair.3 He questioned a hotel schools claim to have qualified thousands of men and women for two thousand to seven thousand dollars a year jobs with living often included. Haas also doubted a leading schools equation of one year of its training with 10 years of practical experience. He chided an automotive repair school for pledging that even if you have never touched an auto before, if you take our course you can become an expert and then earn big pay, a boast as far-fetched as that of another radio school: Positions offering real pay and good opportunity are going begging.4

Newspaper and magazine ads consumed approximately 10% of the Columbia  home study budget in the late 1920s, with another 4% spent for circulars and flyers.5 The private schools without salesmen spent more than that; those with a sales force spent less. President Butler did not object to the amount of money expended; what worried him was the impression the ads created. Both inside and outside Columbia, critics of home study saw the ads as evidence that the enterprise was commercial, without which being in the least true may be none the less damaging, Butler felt.6 He wanted home study described as a form of adult education, which had a good reputation, and by the late 1920s, more and more of the ads boldfaced those two words. His former colleague Frederick Keppel, head of the Carnegie Corporation, shared that point of view, with the Carnegie philanthropists funding adult education (in brick-and-mortar settings) for intellectual and cultural enlightenment rather than vocational training, the focus of the proprietary correspondence schools (Lagemann 1989, Ch. 5).

Columbias advertisements lacked the overblown claims that Haas catalogued and the federal government penalized. The ads usually devoted more than half of the space to a large photography of the library, the name of the university in oversized boldfaced letters, and a long list of courses. The text occasionally made sweeping generalizations, assurances along the lines of everyone can reap great benefit from continued study and to be happy and successful to ones capacity one must continue study throughout life.  But often the global claims were qualified, as my italics in the following phrases indicate: These courses offer opportunity for increased business efficiency, many of the advantages which a resident academic course would have given you, and the instruction that can help so much in bringing inherent ability into competent expression. The frequent references to genuine Columbia courses were a stretch in the case of secretarial studies, boy scouting, interior decorating, high school fare, and several other options, but each course had to be approved by a Columbia department and then taught by an instructor in, or endorsed by, that department. There were occasional allusions to the tangible rewards a student might reapgreater business or professional effectivenessbut no specific figures were ever mentioned, and no testimonials were ever published, two familiar features of the proprietary schools relentless emphasis on money. The catalog of the English courses, the field that attracted the most registrations, warned that no promises of practical results can be made to students enrolling in these courses . . . students, particularly young ones and those lacking a sound background of education, are therefore frankly warned against expecting extravagant results from any of these courses (Home Study Courses 1931, 17).  Even the claim that students would receive attention that is just as personal and complete as that given to the campus student was not untruthful in an era of large lecture classes taught by faculty more interested in research than individual appointments with scores of undergraduates.7 To excoriate all the ads as fraudulent is misleading (Noble 2001, 14).  


In 1925, Columbia hired student advisers to attract home study students. As a result, enrollment rose quickly. The slow growth from 1920 to 1924from 145 to 827 studentsspiraled to 1,854, 4,462, and 6,258 students in the next three years and peaked early in 1930 at almost 10,000, which was 13% of the university home study enrollments in the country (Burrell 1954, 39; Reeves 1933, 15). The advisers were most successful in recruiting clerks, businessmen, housewives, health care providers, and teachers (the students top five careers, with English and business the most popular courses); males (60% of enrollments); and U.S. residents (from 49 states, with 2% of the students from 30 other countries). Approximately half of the students had at least one year of college, and an estimated one-sixth had graduated (Smith 1935). In contrast, the less educated proprietary school student was more likely to be a blue-collar worker seeking vocational training to secure a promotion or self-employment (Watkinson 1996).

Among the for-profit schools, personal solicitation was widespread: 60% of the NHSC members employed salesmen.8 The International Correspondence Schools (ICS) had demonstrated the benefits of a sales force in the late 1890s. ICSs enrollment of 6,530 in 1896 soared to 71,885 in 1899 after hiring salesmen in the second half of 1897, and in the first three decades of the 20th century, ICS remained the nations largest school, enlisting 100,000 or so new students year after year (Clark 1906; Watkinson 1996).

By the 1930s, the reputation of correspondence school salesmen was tarnished. Many agents did whatever they felt was necessary to generate commissions, the delegates to the annual NHSC meetings acknowledged. Prospects who were too young, too poor, and too uneducated were assured that they qualified for correspondence courses. The career opportunities and average wages for graduates were often inflated or invented; some brash salesmen even promised employment with a particular company upon completion. Only a half dozen of the 50 NHSC members trained new salesmen, and the instruction usually lasted one week, with the memorization and recitation of a scripted sales talk the major assignment.9 Overzealousness was rampant in the disreputable schools not affiliated with the NHSC, but several statistics suggest that it also afflicted Council schools. In 1929, the association members began to report to Executive Secretary John Noffsinger the salesmen who had been fired for misconduct. By October 1937, there were 423 names on the list, including 27 who had been dismissed at least twice.10 Furthermore, Noffsinger told the 1939 annual meeting that a larger proportion of students who enrolled through the mail persevered than those who had been enlisted in person, a comparison implying that overeager salesmen had wooed many unqualified students.11

In several ways, the Columbia staff were salesmen. They called on prospects rather than work from offices, as counselors did. Most of them chose to receive commissions (approximately 20% of the fee) rather than a salary, and many of them had previously worked for proprietary schools. But Columbia tried to prevent the mischief so widespread in commercial firms. No student could enroll without the approval of an officer in the Department of Admissions, a safeguard not in place in the proprietary schools. Furthermore, nearly half of the 65 field advisers were former ministers. Two advisors were former college presidents, all but four of the staff had college degrees, and everyone received a week or two of training followed by daily bulletins from the central office (Langston 1930).

What Columbia did in regard to salesmen, and advertising, resembled the methods of for-profit schools. They all marketed their wares rather than waiting for students to contact them. But unlike so many of the for-profit schools, Columbia did not abuse the solicitation of students. The same distinction between use and abuse marked the third aspect of the correspondence school business model.


A legal contract between the school and the student enumerated the rights and responsibilities of both parties, including a clause that obligated the students to pay the full tuition even if they stopped sending lessons or returned the texts. Most students enrolled with a small down payment and monthly installments thereafter rather than take a discount for full payment at the outset. At the large Alexander Hamilton Institute, for example, the first payment on a course, whether part or all of the fee, accounted for only 13.9% of its annual revenue from 1920 to 1925.12  

A small fraction of the students completed the courses. Several estimates put the rates between 5% and 15% for yearlong courses (Kennan 1940, 43; Noffsinger 1926, 66; Rietzke 2007). As a result, the profitability of the industry hinged on how many of the dropouts could be coaxed or cajoled to pay for what they no longer wanted. Nearly every school tried hard to collect. Alexander Hamiltons collection expenses exceeded its advertising budget in the 1920s, and even then, the receivables (unpaid tuition) carried on the books usually equaled or slightly exceeded the cash collected each year (and at the bottom of the Depression, the ratio was two to one).

Four-fifths of Columbias home study students signed installment payment contracts. Butler was upset to learn in 1927 that the annual budget proposed by the division counted the receivables as cash in hand when in fact the unpaid debt exceeded $200,000. For instance, the 19271928 budget forecast initial receipts from 7,500 new registrations ($240,000), additional payments from those new students ($148,000), and money from students registered in previous years ($157,200).13 Butler criticized the partial fee arrangement as full of danger to the universitys financial stability and its good name. He preferred the semiannual payments required of on-campus students, but installment sales nevertheless continued as home studys revenues finally exceeded its expenses (see Table 1).14  

The archival sources do not indicate how many receivables were never recovered at Columbia, but we do know that only 19% who began the courses eventually finished (Smith 1935, 18). We also know the crucial fact that Columbia did not use two tactics commonly employed by the proprietary schools: referring the delinquent accounts to collection agencies, and filing lawsuits to recover the unpaid balance. Coercion would lead us straight into the worst vices that have in the past earned the distrust of the public for correspondence work (Annual Report 19301931, 334).15 Columbias contracts committed its dropouts to a fraction of the total tuition plus a prorated sum for the lessons that had been submitted. During the worst months of the Depression, the university relented from that provision, canceling the contracts of students who were unemployed or destitute.

In contrast, the proprietary schools in the 1930s continued to use a wide range of strategies to pry payments from their delinquents. They tried to reenlist students through friendly letters, not surprisingly. Anyone who failed to pay on time received a stream of appeals written to repaint that picture of a happy and successful future that the ads and salesmen had used to convince the student to enroll, and at the same time remind him of the legal obligation to pay.16 The in-house collection department called its work resales as it emphasized noble reasons for the student to resume studying and paying, including the option to switch to another course. Prizes and discounts awaited those who caught up; for instance, bodybuilder Charles Atlas sent a free Dynamic Tension Health Belt whenever an overdue balance was paid.17

Tougher measures began if the salvo of inspirational letters produced no results. Consider the methods used by LaSalle Extension University, the second largest for-profit firm. The head of collections wrote to the employers of students who had not paid, including excerpts of letters sent by the student to LaSalle. For one student who said he was underage and had not a nickel in this world, no relations in this country, no backing of any kind, LaSalle contacted his former employer eight months after the account lapsed, asking if his claims were correct (they were not).18 For another student, the same strategy proved more embarrassing because he lost his temper:

you keep your damn long nose out of my business or just come down and knock at my door, you dirty, yellow-streaked skunk. I am paying LaSalle Extension University as fast as I am able. I dont want to receive any more of your chain letters. If you send any more, deliver them in person, if you have any guts. Such parasites as you should be annihilated from the face of the earth . . . Ill bet your backbone is made of chalk. The idea, you sending your dirty, threatening, intimidating letters through the mail.

The employer apologized on behalf of John Blank, who, on the day he wrote that letter, had buried his sister, the larger portion of the funeral expense to be borne by him, and convinced Blank to resume payments. The employer hoped that LaSalle would therefore not try to invoke Illinois laws to put a lien on Blanks wages to recover the overdue $37.50.19

That threat of garnishment was a sign of how relentless LaSalle could be, but the severity was not a surefire tactic. From three annual reports from the 1930s, it is clear that LaSalle set aside almost two-fifths of its new sales each year as a reserve for future losses.20 Moreover, the firm suffered a legal setback when the Nebraska Supreme Court in 1934 affirmed lower court rulings that fined LaSalle $500 for the mental anguish caused by a series of 40 letters over almost two years to James Fogarty, including several disguised as pseudo-legal forms and two letters to Fogartys neighbors besmirching his integrity. Some harassing and threatening letters to Fogarty arrived in lurid red envelopes emblazoned with bolts of lightning.21

Whether a firm handled its own collections or sent them to an outside agency, the for-profit schools agreed that it was useful to sue now and then to establish the fact that it could be done, although they preferred to settle out of court, often for half of the amount due. Usually the defendant would plead poverty, change of employment, misrepresentation by the salesman, or other plausible reasons to stop, and his friends, relatives, and colleagues would then see the school, not the student, as the wrongdoer. We doubt whether the profit is worth the enmity, one school head acknowledged.22 By his calculations, the accounts referred to lawyers yielded only 7.5% of the unpaid fees. And even with the precedent of successful suits, some judges had limited damages to the small amount expended by enrolling the student and sending a few lessons. Yet if the schools never sued, they feared that cancellations would increase. Threaten often and sue occasionally was the strategy used.


Those methods of enforcing contracts evoked much resentment at the time, but the largest for-profit correspondence schools survived the Depression. They had an edge that Columbia lacked in light of its unwillingness to hound students for payment. ICS, LaSalle, Alexander Hamilton, the American School, the Federal Schools, and the National Radio Institute endured, although many smaller schools collapsed (Noffsinger estimated that half of the schools alive in 1929 were gone by 1934). At Columbia, home study deficits grew from $27,000 in 19301931 to $172,000 in 19311932. As the division continued to lose money in 1932, the advertising budget was cut by half in December and then eliminated in 1933. So were all field advisers. The setbacks were an abrupt change from the optimism expressed five years earlier, when the head of home study foresaw annual enrollments of 35,000 and drafted a fundraising flyer to secure $1.25 million for a new building to consolidate the five crowded offices and make room for the staff of the American Correspondence School of Librarianship, a for-profit school in Syracuse, New York purchased by Columbia in the spring of 1928.23

President Butler insisted that home study sustain itself. The profits from the other extension activities could have underwritten home study losses, as Table 1 indicates, but Butler balked. After pointing out how much argument it has required to keep it in place, Butler in 1931 praised home study as an honorable aspect of adult education, but always with the understanding that it carried itself financially, with free office space and utilities as Columbias only subsidy. Fiscal prudence was especially urgent in the Depression. Unlike several Ivy League schools, Columbia never launched a major endowment campaign in the 1920s, and in the next decade, the market value of the endowment declined by 20% as the other Ivy endowments rose slightly. There were annual deficits throughout the 1930s, even as the overall University expenditures fell 27% from 19311932 to 19391940 (McCaughey 2003, 315; Rosenthal 2006, Ch. 17).

Table 1. Columbia Home Study Revenues and Expenditures, 19211937

Fiscal Year     Home Study Income    H.S. Expenditures   Profit/Loss        Extension Division Profit     

1921/22         $ 23,000                           n.a.                                                  $ 270,000

1922/23            28,000                           n.a.                                                     293,000

1923/24            29,000                        $ 49,000                   (20,000)               308,000

1924/25            87,000                         112,000                   (25,000)               411,000

1925/26           214,000                        224,000                   (12,000)               508,000

1926/27           286,000                        381,000                   (95,000)               510,000

1927/28           523,000                        505,000                     18,000               524,000

1928/29           656,000                        622,000                     34,000               428,000

1929/30           751,000                        715,000                     36,000               411,000

1930/31           677,000                        704,000                    (27,000)             349,000

1931/32           482,000                        654,000                  (172,000)             252,000

1932/33           342,000                       436,000                      (96,000)            136,000

1933/34           116,000                        123,000                      (7,000)             112,000

1934/35             48,000                          90,000                    (42,000)             127,000

1935/36             43,000                          72,000                    (29,000)             107,000

1936/37             32,000                          53,000                    (20,000)             204,000

Source:  Annual Report of the President and Treasurer, 19221937.

Note: The Extension Division profits do not include Home Study profits or losses.

Perhaps the retreat from advertisements and salesmen could have succeeded in the prosperous 1920s, but in the 1930s, revenue fell sharply without the customary ways of attracting new students. Revenue plunged by two thirds in the 1933-34 fiscal year. When the for-profit schools had a modest gain in enrollments and revenue in 1934 and 1935, Columbia home study receipts declined, reaching $43,000 by 19351936. In its annual reports, the staff bravely pointed to flickers of interest from high schools, New Deal work camps, and radio stations, and wistfully recalled the value of honest advertisements. To Butler, the field will be well covered by other organizations, he tersely wrote in explaining why it was time to stop at the end of 1936 (Annual Report 19351936, 36).  

In his final report, James Richards, director of home study since 1930, offered his own explanation for the dwindling enrollments. Columbia had held back from truly competing in the marketplace, he believed. Rather than striving too hard to sell its courses, it had been pulled equally in two directions in neither one of which we could walk freely (Annual Report 19361937, 330). On the one hand, the courses had to parallel the comparable fare offered on campus, but without the benefit of college credits. Approximately 80% of the correspondence coursework offered by other universities included the option of earning credits, often by taking a final examination on campus or under supervision off campus (Hall-Quest 1926; Bittner and Mallory 1933). Columbia not only eschewed credits, but until 1928, the registrar refused to reveal the credits available in the on-campus course similar to the home study equivalent, thus handicapping prospective and current teachers whose school boards were willing to accept Columbia home study for the sake of salary increases.24 On the other hand, Columbia never offered the full range of vocational courses that many students sought. There was no enthusiasm for going beyond the curriculum already in place on campus, but many correspondence students wanted to learn the skills necessary for a promotion or self-employment in blue-collar fields where university coursework was sparse. The rise in home study enrollments in the first three decades of the 20th century has been aptly explained as filling a gap left by the paucity of vocational training in public schools (Kett 1994; Watkinson 1996). Richards felt that if Columbia had been free to pursue those students, his department would have flourished. We will never know his reaction to Flexners criticisms, but I imagine it would be this: If only we had been a business.


The Wisconsin idea of university service to citizens and policy makers was well known by 1910, when one observer compared the main campus to a tree with branches and roots throughout the state in indefinable ramifications (Slosson 1910, 213). After a slow start in the 1890s, extension work at Wisconsin expanded rapidly in the next decade, supported by Governor Robert LaFollette, legislative reference librarian Charles McCarthy, and University of Wisconsin president Charles Van Hise. They believed that the widespread dissemination of knowledge would benefit the taxpayers, the government, and the university by fostering rational decision-making based on empirical evidence. The history of work/study continuation programs in Germany and the success of agricultural extension in American land grant universities were celebrated as evidence of the value of spreading useful information throughout the state (Hanzlik-Green 2003, Ch. 3). To accomplish that ambitious goal of linking the campus with the rest of Wisconsin, the extension staff did not wait for requests. With only half of its annual budget underwritten by legislative appropriations, the Extension Division had to generate income to meet its expenses. There were no endowment funds or university subventions aside from office space to support the work. As one agent said, the district organization [of the agents] must create a demand for instruction or lecture courses or community institutes, when it appears none exists, and where it is evident there is urgent need for such services (Melville 1915, 64). Newspaper articles and mailings were helpful, but nothing took the place of personal contacts, agent Marshall Graf claimed in 1924. His predecessor gave many speeches, but when Graf relied on face-to-face meetings, his enrollments were six times higher (Proceedings of the National University Extension Association 1924, 46). The agents persuasion included coaxing extension colleagues on the main campus to satisfy consumer demand. The field staff relayed prospects requests for instruction on subjects where the university had nothing to offer, but the private schools did. For instance, several agents said that a course in commercial art would do well, attracting students who paid $155, far more than Wisconsin would charge, to the for-profit Federal Schools in Minneapolisthe school where cartoonist Charles Schulz studied in the late 1930s and worked in the late 1940s (Michaelis 2007). One agent proposed a Wisconsin course to prepare students for the federal Civil Service examinations. The commercial schools are doing a large business in this field at the present time. We could just as well be getting some of this business if we had the courses and gave it publicity.25 That suggestion was not adopted (the director of the field agents knew that special preparation for those exams was usually unnecessary), but with 420 courses by the end of the 1930s, Wisconsin home study offered a wide range of courses, including the largest slate of noncredit courses of any American university.

The outreach worked. Home study enrollments rose steadily in the 1910s and 1920s, spiking after World War I to over 10,000 when returning veterans could take a course for free, then stabilizing around 4,5005,000 in the mid to late 1920s (from 1906 to 1916, in contrast, an average of 2,450 signed up each year). In the Depression, the numbers fell to 3,026 in 19341935 but then rose slowly to 4,274 by 19391940. Boosted by wartime contracts with the armed forces, Wisconsin home study reached unprecedented numbers of students in the early to mid-1940s, and then drew 6,000 to 8,000 new students annually in the 1950s.26

McCarthy had been sure that marketing was crucial when he urged Van Hise in 1907 to hire a shrewd, sharp leader rather than a scholar as the first dean of extension. McCarthy pointed out that the founders of the largest private correspondence schools were businessmen and predicted that a scholar as dean could not sway the dozens of professors who disliked the work (so much so that several visited the governor to oppose home study). Van Hise sought a candidate who combined administrative ability and academic talent. I cannot agree at all that a business man alone is wanted. McCarthy remained skeptical, preferring an enterprising young man with ability, ingenuity, push, and go.27

Van Hise prevailed with the appointment of Louis Reber, an engineering professor from Pennsylvania State University, but Reber also had the skills McCarthy valued. The new dean visited ICS before moving to Madison, and soon thereafter hired an ICS regional manager.28 Reber knew that vocational courses sustained the proprietary schools more so than the liberal arts work favored by his director of home study, and Reber therefore encouraged the sale of engineering, business, and teacher education courses to prospective students. Another example of his imitation of the competition was an appeal to manufacturers and other employers to subscribe for home study courses for their workers (Rosentreter 1957, 6976).  

Advertisements, salesmen, and contracts: to what extent did Wisconsin use the business practices adopted by for-profit schools and adapted by Columbia? Rebers attentiveness to private school methods notwithstanding, Wisconsin eschewed those tactics. Unlike Columbia and the proprietary schools, they found home study students with very few ads, no salesmen, and no contracts, yet pursued prospects energetically and successfully.

In advertising, Wisconsin marketed itself through circulars and bulletins rather than newspaper ads. In 1938, for instance, 446,000 mailings reached recent high school graduates (125,000), public school teachers (104,000), businessmen (30,000), and others in the state. Wall posters were sent to every high school. There were occasional small advertisements, but the extension staff lacked their own budgets to create and place notices in their districts. They instead relied on news articles in local newspapers.

For sales, there were eight field agents who publicized all aspects of extension workhome study, evening courses, traveling libraries, lectures, debates, and summer institutes. They were not solely salesmen in that they usually taught one or two courses. Unlike their Columbia counterparts, they received salaries rather than commissions. None of them worked outside Wisconsin, whereas only five states in the nation were not covered by Columbias staff.

Contracts and collections, the third part of the proprietary school business model, were not a central feature of Wisconsin home study. Students paid in full at the start of a course, with $5 installments accepted when hardship could be demonstrated. If a second installment never arrived, no lessons were sent, thus avoiding the obligation to badger students to pay (on the other hand, if no lessons were submitted, no refund was offered).29 Because nearly all courses cost $15 to $25, the number of installment payments was less than at Columbia (where the average course fee was $75) and the private schools (where tuition of $100 or more was common).

In short, Wisconsin avoided Columbias flirtation with commercial methods. The field agents, with the approval of their supervisors, actively recruited students, but they were not commission salesmen backed by extensive advertising campaigns. They nevertheless sought and achieved the same goal held by Columbia: expansion as a result of marketing campaigns. Wisconsin avoided the appearance of familiar commercial tactics as it adroitly promoted itself.  

It also distanced itself from the for-profit firms by criticizing the worst ones. Extension staff tried to protect naïve youth and their parents from the blandishments of unethical correspondence schools. Field agents reports, files from urban Better Business Bureaus, cease-and-desist orders from the Federal Trade Commission, and other evidence of fraud accumulated in Madison, and anyone with a question about a particular school could write to the Division to request information before enrolling or seek advice on breaking a contract after enrolling.30 The division helped state officials draft one- and two-page flyers about racket schools, with examples of their deceptive tactics.31 In the absence of national and regional accreditation for correspondence schools, many prospects did not know how to distinguish a legitimate from a fly-by-night school. Another form of appraisal taken for granted todaythird-party evaluations of distance learning vendorshad no counterpart in the 1930s. The Extension Division was filling that gap, coaching potential students to become better consumers in the educational marketplace. The division also promoted regulation of that marketplace. Rather than rely on the Federal Trade Commission or seek court cases for mail fraud, state legislation to oversee the 150 firms selling in Wisconsin was sought. Several dozen states did that in the 1930s, including Wisconsin in 1937. Its law did not outlaw contracts or license salesmen (two provisions characteristic of the sternest state laws), but it did require firms to post a bond, file lessons and contracts with the state superintendent of instruction, and disavow any promises of employment upon completion of the course.32

A final way to reinforce the distinctions between Wisconsin home study and the proprietary rivals was the cultivation of allies throughout the public schools and colleges of Wisconsin. The field agents worked through local administrators to reach students. High school principals arranged time each spring for the agents to tell the seniors what extension had to offer (C. Allen 1930, 74). Several agents invited high school graduates to meet them at the principals office, where the agent and principal together helped the prospect select home study courses (if the student took and passed the same number of courses on the Madison campus, then the home study courses counted toward the bachelors degree).

When the agents explored the market for home study courses comparable with the high school curriculum, they were invariably diplomatic. For example, Wisconsins vocational and evening schools taught courses in some fields covered by home study, and periodically the division withdrew its wares rather than compete for those enrollments. In small rural villages, correspondence courses were suggested as an inexpensive way to supplement rather than supplant the high school curriculum, and in villages without their own high school, the agendas hoped that the school board would pay for home study courses for eighth-grade graduates who could not or would not travel to another town for ninth grade and beyond. If the town did have a high school, the university refused to accept correspondence study credits (from teenagers) in place of high school credits to gain admission. In other words, home study was part of a web of connections designed to sustain extension work as a collegial service rather than an unwelcome rival to other educators in Wisconsin. When an extension official was too eager to forge alliances beyond the scope approved by his superiorsas Dean Snell did in 1934, when he tried to create the equivalent of junior college programs at several Wisconsin normal schoolshe had to pull back (Bower 2002, 25; Cronon and Jenkins 1994, 251, 809)

By carefully establishing its enemies and allies, Wisconsin home study seemed to sidestep the most blatant features of unrestrained marketplace competition. From the start, it intertwined with public education in the state, positioning itself as one node in a larger system created to serve the people more altruistically than the private sector. On the other hand, Wisconsin home study stood apart from the disreputable for-profit schools by actively campaigning against them. Columbia home study lacked those two sources of protection from its critics.  


The stories of Wisconsin and Columbia home study suggest several conclusions about the line between business and education in the history of American universities. I write each one in the present tense in the hope that students of other eras and other higher education topics find them relevant:

--The dominance of large commercial suppliers in the same field is crucial. If the rival has a good reputation, universities need to explain why they are replicating services already available (for instance, the governor of Wisconsin almost vetoed the first appropriation for home study when he learned that 35,000 residents took courses from reputable correspondence schools).33 When that rival has an unsavory reputation, universities proceed cautiously, justifying their presence in the fieldthe ideology of service, in this caseand explain how they will avoid the objectionable actions of the dominant supplier by refusing to adopt the controversial aspects of its business model. What makes that task difficult is that an honest use of business tactics will strike many observers as ipso facto abuseabuse not necessarily of the tactic itself, but of the mission and values of the university, which are supposedly apart from and superior to the marketplace.

--Without dominant commercial rivals, the charge of university commercialism can be more readily denied or rebutted, as the history of collegiate athletics in the 1920s and 1930s demonstrated. In that case, the weakness of professional sports deprived critics of a visible benchmark against which they could measure collegiate behavior, which at the time evoked accusations of chasing money and entertainment at the expense of the education of student athletes (Savage 1929; Thelin 1994).

--Leaving the market entirely is always an option. University support of classroom extension work was stronger than its backing of home study, and the latter could be sacrificed without hurting the former. The rest of Columbias extension work was in good shape when home study ended, and it did well during and after World War II (Burrell 1954, Ch. 7). As public universities opened branch campuses and community colleges arose, more and more students found home study unnecessary. Rural residents of the state could be well served at convenient sites. The eagerness of home study staff was therefore in part a defensive strategythey had to secure again and again their place within the university to prove, as Butler put it, that they were a Cinderella destined to become a Fairy Godmother (Annual Report 19231924, 25)

--Embracing the marketplace more fervently is probably too expensive. At no time did Columbia or Wisconsin seriously consider doing what happened in the 1990s, when some prominent American universities acted like venture capitalists in the dawn of the Internet. Several universities formed alliances with commercial firms, and others underwrote for-profit spinoffs to create and supply distance learning. Columbia joined a consortium of top-tier universities (a notion discussed but never achieved by home study administrators in the 1920s) investing more than $20 million in Fathom, which collapsed within a few years when the projected demand for noncredit courses never materialized (Kirp 2003, 17275). No comparable plunge into the for-profit sector ever marked home study earlier in the century, nor did the opposite path chosen by MIT recently: courting the market by releasing all course materials free of charge (but underwritten by large foundation grants) through OpenCourseWare. Both strategies required enormous sums unavailable to extension divisions in the 1920s and 1930s.

--Transforming the nature of the product offered to the marketplace was a lost opportunity. What was within reach of home study budgets early in the 20th century failed to excite the faculty necessary to carry it out: use home study for research and development. The gulf between extension divisions and many (but not all) faculty left home study without the full benefit of what could have been its greatest competitive edge: the expertise of scholars. The core academic value of the research university was the creation of new knowledge, and the thousands of home study students could have been the equivalent of a lab school for exploring how students learn. Psychologist Charles Judd, chair of the Department of Education at the University of Chicago, urged the private schools to do that by studying a topic also germane to the nonprofits: the reading habits of their students. A great many people dont know how to read well and dont know they dont know.34 There were graduate student investigations of home study, to be sure, but faculty participation rarely went beyond occasional assistance with the curriculum.

As one important result, the universities never created innovative home study texts, a distinction claimed by the for-profit schools when they boasted of their clear and simple lessons. Short sentences, familiar words, first- and second-person diction, copious pictures, 1624-page chapters: correspondence school assignments were said to be easier to grasp than the dry fare in ponderous high school and college textbooks (often sold as loose-leaf notebook entries or pocket-size pamphlets, they were literally easier to grasp). The lessons focused on practical applications, omitting material unrelated to everyday use. As a LaSalle bulletin said, There is no place for theory in this course.35 The university home study curriculum set forth no alternatives to that approach or to traditional university texts. Without the benefit of its greatest competitive edgeresearchers working on the frontiers of curriculum and instruction university home study missed the chance to redefine the marketplace in which it had tried so hard to outflank the for-profit schools.

Distance educators in the early 21st century are more willing to question the traditional methods of teaching and learning. Real-time instruction requires new skills for the design and delivery of online materials. For instance, the ability to plan and coordinate peer interaction online extends the pedagogical repertoire of a professor accustomed to face-to-face seminars. The new technologies promise to change, not just automate, the traditional notions of learning as well as teaching. Researchers are paying more and more attention to the nontrivial differences in the pace of learning once the place and the time devoted to learning become flexible (M. Allen 2008). They are studying online learners to examine how they think, and that promises to increase retention rates, a longstanding challenge that home study never solved (Kearsley 2005; Zhao et al. 2005). At present, it is still not clear if the shifts for both learners and teachers will be modest changes or revolutionary possibilities, in the words of Gary Natriello, the editor of this journal (Natriello 2005). But it is clear that universities today are less cavalier than they were 75 years ago about the merits of scholarship on this topic, and this article adds to that scholarship by calling attention to the value of studying the history of correspondence schools and home study.


Anne Boylan (University of Delaware), Von Pitman (University of MissouriColumbia), Jim Raths (University of Delaware), John Thelin (University of Kentucky), and Harold Wechsler (New York University) provided excellent advice. Attorney Kate Chandler (Los Angeles) clarified several legal issues, and a University of Delaware travel grant helped underwrite research at the University of Wisconsin.


1. Abraham Flexner to Paul Hanus, February 3, 1930, Paul Hanus folder, Container 9, Abraham Flexner Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

2. Flexner to Hanus, November 1, 1930, Abraham Flexner Papers, Library of Congress.

3. His schools advertisements had been more brazen in the 1920s, including guarantees of employment, promises of free instruments, and identification of Haas himself as formerly of the Radio Division of Yale University, where he had assisted with the army officers training held on that campus during World War I. Old Magazine and Newspaper Advertisements folder, NRI Collection, Radio-Television Museum, Bowie, MD.

4. 1931 NHSC Annual Convention, transcript, Distance Education Training Council, Washington, D.C.

5. Proposed Revised Budget, 1928/29, folder 4, Levering Tyson Papers, Columbia University Archives.

6. Nicholas Murray Butler to James Egbert, December 28, 1931, folder 10, James Egbert Papers, Columbia University Archives.

7. To sample Columbias advertisements, I read the March and September issues of Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times, and the New York Herald Tribune from 1925 to 1933.

8. 1942 NHSC Annual Convention, transcript, Distance Education and Training Council (DETC hereafter), Washington, D.C., 75.

9. 1937 NHSC Annual Convention, transcript, DETC, 15893.

10. The list is in the Materials on Agencies Purporting to Police Activities of Commercial Schools binder, box 6, Chester Allen Papers, Steenbock Library, University of WisconsinMadison.

11. 1939 NHSC Annual Convention, transcript, DETC, 79.

12. Financial ledgers, 19201929, Alexander Hamilton Institute, Ramsey, NJ, and 19251935 annual reports, Baker Library, Harvard Business School, Cambridge, MA. The schools without salesmen were more likely to accept payments for each lesson or set of lessons rather than rely on contracts signed by students they had never seen.

13. Proposed Revised Budget, 19271928, folder 4, Tyson Papers.

14. Nicholas Murray Butler to James Egbert, June 1, June 3, 1927, folder 8, Egbert Papers.

15. The 19141915 through 19361937 editions of the Annual Report of the President and Treasurer (New York: Columbia University Press) were consulted. Several of these, with the years noted, are cited in parentheses in the article.

16. 1935 NHSC Annual Convention, transcript, DETC, 199.

17. Debt Collection folder, box 5, Charles Atlas Papers, National Museum of American History, Washington, D.C.

18. 1932 NHSC Annual Convention, transcript, DETC, 118.

19. 1935 NHSC Annual Convention, transcript, DETC, 22628.

20. The reserves were 36.2% (1931), 42.5% (1936), and 37.8% (1938) of sales. LaSalle Extension University, 19131944 folder, DETC, Washington, D.C.

21. LaSalle Extension University v Fogarty, 126 Neb. 457, 253 North Western Reporter, 425 (1934). The resentment caused by lawsuits had convinced the Pennsylvania Railroads Western Regional Division in 1926 to withhold an endorsement of LaSalles courses for training station agents, a course the railroad considered valuable. box 1081, Pennsylvania Railroad Papers, Hagley Museum, Greenville, DE.

22. 1939 NHSC Annual Convention, transcript, DETC, 69.

23. Levering Tyson to Nicholas Murray Butler, January 26, 1928, folder 4, Tyson Papers; New York Times, March 21, 1928; the fund-raising flyer, The Development and Possibilities of Home Study, in InstructionHome Study File, Columbia University Archives.

24. Levering Tyson to F. D. Fackenthal, June 7, 1928, folder 4, Tyson Papers. For Tysons unrequited plea for a new degree to recognize successful home studya bigger job than the one [accomplished by anyone] who completes that program by study in residencesee Tyson (1923).

25. M. J. Lowe to Dean F. O. Holt, January 19, 1936, box 44, Lighty Papers.

26. Enrollment figures are from the Biennial reports of the Extension Division, the National University Extension Association proceedings, and Sources of New Correspondence-Study Registrations, box 2, Chester Allen Papers, Steenbock Library, University of WisconsinMadison.

27. McCarthy to Van Hise, July 20, July 29, and August 6, 1907; Van Hise to McCarthy, August 1, 1907, reel 12, Charles Van Hise Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society.

28. William Lighty to John L. Gillen, December 31, 1948, box 92, William Lighty Papers. To see how the for-profit schools appealed to prospective students, Lighty wrote to several dozen schools, posing as a potential student.

30. Stopped in 1927, installment payment was again possible by 1932. Biennial Report of the Dean of the University Extension Division, 19261928, Bulletin of the University of Wisconsin; Dean Chester Snell to President Glenn Frank, July 27, 1933, Snell folder, box 138, Glenn Frank Papers, University of Wisconsin Archives.

31. There are four binders of newspaper clippings, letters, memoranda, flyers, and other materials on private correspondence schools in box 6 of the Chester Allen Papers.

32. Expose the Rackets in Education [May, 1938], SAFETY FIRST: Investigate Correspondence School Contracts[n.d.] To Parents, Teachers, and Other Citizens of Wisconsin [n.d.], and Counsel on Educational Opportunities [March, 1940], in box 3, Chester Allen Papers.

33. For the origins of this law, see the letters between Chester Allen and E. E. Witte (professor of economics at the University of Wisconsin) and the exchange between Attorney General Orland Loomis and State Superintendent of Education John Callahan, binder 3, box 3, Chester Allen Papers.

34. Charles McCarthy to Norman Hopgood, October 8, 1910, reel 1, Charles McCarthy Papers, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison.

35. 1932 NHSC Annual Convention, transcript, DETC, 57.

36. Personnel and Employee Management, LaSalle pamphlet, 1925, Hagley Museum, Greenville DE, 19. We need more research on home study textbooks. Many survive in libraries and archives, and frequently they are for sale on eBay and elsewhere.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 112 Number 9, 2010, p. 2496-2571
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16045, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 6:14:06 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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