Correspondence Schools Essay

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What we now call “distance education” began long before computers linked students and teachers. From the 1890s on, a wide range of private companies, public universities, and enterprising individuals sold instruction by mail. State and federal regulations were so meager before the 1930s that even the sham schools thrived. The popularity of this form of education diminished after 1930, but before then more students enrolled annually in correspondence courses than entered colleges and universities. This entry looks at the history of correspondence schools: why students enrolled, what schools offered, how standards were developed, and why this educational option declined.

Student Motivations

Acquiring a better job was the reason why most people took a correspondence course. They wanted to learn the specific skills necessary for a promotion or for self-employment. The early-twentieth-century labor market changed more rapidly than the curriculum of the public high school, where only a small fraction of adolescents graduated, and vocational training was in its infancy. For an unskilled or semiskilled laborer, home study promised a brighter future in expanding sectors of the workforce. For White-collar workers, the field of business abounded with mail-order courses, especially in accounting and sales. For several professions where educational credentials were not yet a precondition of taking licensing examinations, coursework in law, engineering, and architecture could be purchased.

Not everyone sought vocational goals, to be sure. Self-improvement was pursued through courses in music, art, foreign languages, social skills, physical fitness, and hobbies such as radio repair. The popular Arthur Murray dance studios began as correspondence courses. Nearly any academic subject could be studied, from basic mathematics to Hebrew. The schools offered whatever the marketplace would buy—the largest firms had hundreds of courses— although the vocational fare outsold all else.

To help students succeed, the correspondence schools relied on concise texts. The schools often created their own materials rather than assign someone else’s books and articles. Most courses had a series of sixteen to thirty-two-page lessons. Short sentences, simple words, first and second-person diction, copious pictures: The lessons were designed to be easier to grasp than those in traditional textbooks. The courses focused on practical applications rather than theoretical foundations, and they assumed that learning was linear: Students were expected to master each lesson before starting the next one. Examinations posed short-answer questions calling for restatement or paraphrase of specific passages in the lesson (art, drafting, and creative writing were the exceptions). Comments from the instructors were usually prompt and apt. Telephone calls and personal meetings were not provided, although a few schools offered several weeks of on-site training at the end of the coursework. Grading was generous, with far more As than Bs and very few failures.

University Home Study

Several of the premier universities included home study as part of their outreach to adults in their region. William Rainey Harper, the first president of the University of Chicago, had led a successful correspondence school, and he admired the home-study work of the Chautauqua summer gatherings, which mixed instruction, entertainment, and religion. Harper

celebrated the “extension” work of major research universities, sure that their mission of cultural evangelism should include instruction for nonmatriculated students by means of traveling libraries, itinerant lectures, evening classes, and home study. Most of the larger state universities shared his point of view, with the University of Wisconsin foremost in creating multiple educational opportunities for residents far from the campus. At Wisconsin and elsewhere, at least one year of college credits earned through the mail could count toward a bachelor’s degree.

The universities’ home-study departments never reached the scope and scale of their for-profit counterparts. When annual enrollments in university home study peaked in the 1920s, they were only 15 percent of the half million who bought home-study courses elsewhere. The greater prestige of a University of Chicago or Wisconsin did not offset several disadvantages. Many faculty refused to participate, and many administrators subordinated home study to other extension work. On most campuses, correspondence courses lacked the aggressive recruitment undertaken by the for-profit companies.

Advertising budgets were modest, and promotion by field agents paled in comparison with the solicitations by the salesmen employed by many for-profit schools. Universities preferred to recruit, quietly, from constituencies they knew needed and wanted their service, such as small, rural high schools eager to augment their patchy curriculum. And rarely did higher education target burgeoning sectors in the job market by introducing courses wholly unrelated to familiar academic departments—teacher education, yes; air conditioning and diesel engines, no.

Developing Standards

The legitimacy of home study suffered from the mischief of countless fly-by-night schools. Seeing quick and easy profits in this mail-order business, hundreds of unscrupulous entrepreneurs tried to lure the naive and gullible. Deceptive inducements to enroll were common—ads placed in the “help wanted” columns, claims that no talent was necessary, bogus scholarships, and other misleading incentives. Many schools’ names— university, federal, association, national—distorted their small size. Overblown claims about the employment prospects for graduates were rife. Even when the advertisements were truthful, the pitch from the salesmen often promised the impossible, especially in regard to the job market.

In 1926, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), working with eleven large schools, developed rules of ethical conduct. By 1940, the FTC had issued several hundred cease-and-desist orders, and the federal postal inspectors had prosecuted some schools for mail-order fraud. Internal regulations also took shape. Approximately 50 of the over-300 schools were founding members of the National Home Study Council (NHSC) in the late 1920s, the first association created by the proprietary schools. NHSC knew that the deceitful schools hurt the reputation of all schools, and it therefore supported the FTC guidelines.

Yet many NHSC schools continued to use one (legal) device that caused much ill will: Students signed binding contracts to pay the full tuition whether or not they persevered. Because only a small fraction ever finished their course, many schools aggressively sought payment, often relying on collection agencies and lawsuits. Whenever the dropout had a reasonable excuse to stop, the relentless enforcement of the contract generated bad publicity for correspondence courses.

For many legislators, the FTC and NHSC accomplishments were too modest. Nearly every state enacted regulations in the 1930s and thereafter. Requiring schools to secure a license was common, and that entailed the submission of advertisements, contracts, texts, financial statements, and other evidence of legitimacy. The states curbed the reach of the good as well as the poor schools by stiffening the requirements for licensure in many occupations. For instance, accounting had attracted thousands of home-study students in the early twentieth century, but by the 1930s, most states required two or four years of college, not just success on an examination previously open to anyone.

Postwar Decline

As an academic credential, home-study enrollment lost value as other sectors of American education expanded. Students who previously dropped out and wanted to return often had no better choice than home study. After World War II, they were more likely to be near a community college, a branch of the state university, or an evening class at the local high school. The expansion of enrollments left fewer stragglers by the wayside, and those who did languish now had fresh chances to catch up by earning traditional secondary and postsecondary credits and degrees.

Furthermore, there were fewer and fewer attractive jobs open to students who prepared solely through home study. Employers preferred or required other credentials when they hired and promoted, leaving the freelance market in art, writing, and photography as the one area where home study grew significantly in the 1950s and 1960s. Vendors of education through the mail still found students for the service they had always provided: convenience at a reasonable cost for anyone interested in knowing more and doing better.

The total number of students enrolled throughout the 1950s and 1960s stayed in or near the half million range achieved in the 1920s, but as a fraction of overall academic enrollments, home study declined. In the 1970s and 1980s, tighter state and federal regulations squeezed enrollments, as did the relentless growth of community colleges. In the 1990s, distance education revived the popularity of learning at home, and many vendors supplied what even the established correspondence schools could not offer: the traditional academic diplomas necessary for career mobility in early twenty-first-century America.


  1. Kett, J. F. (1994). The pursuit of knowledge under difficulties. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  2. Noffsinger, J. S. (1926). Correspondence schools, lyceums, chautauquas. New York: Macmillan.
  3. Woodyard, E. (1940). Culture at a price: A study of private correspondence school offerings. New York: George Grady Press.

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