Comeback of an education racket



The world's bigger universities are now developing

distance education through the internet, on the basis

of its effectiveness as a learning tool. But

correspondence instruction, already discredited at

the start of the 20th century, is also a lucrative





"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" -

George Santayana.


With the arrival of the internet, distance learning has become hugely popular.

Universities see it as the marketplace of the 21st century and are investing a

great deal of energy in online services, especially in the United States. But do

those who are promoting this transformation in higher education know the less

than glorious record of their precursors?


Correspondence instruction began as a commercial enterprise before taking

hold in academia (1). Thomas J. Foster established one of the earliest private,

for-profit correspondence schools in Pennsylvania in the late 1880s to

provide vocational training in mining, mine safety, drafting and metalworking.

He then founded the International Correspondence Schools, which became

one of the largest and most enduring firms in this burgeoning industry. In 1924

these commercial enterprises, aimed at people who needed professional

qualifications in commerce and industry, boasted an enrolment four times that

of all the colleges, universities, and professional schools combined. By 1926

there were over 300 such schools in the US, with an annual income of over



In their promotional material, the firms claimed that they offered personalised

instruction for busy people, that "the student has the individual attention of the

teacher [and] works at his own tempo set by himself and not fixed by the

average capacities of a large number of students studying simultaneously. He

can begin when he likes, study at any hours convenient to him, and finish as

soon as he is able."


In all the firms the priority was enrolment and most of the revenues were

expended in promotion rather than instruction. Typically between 50% and

80% of tuition fees went into direct mail campaigns, magazine and newspaper

advertisements, and the training and support of a sales staff paid according to

the number of enrolments they secured. "The most intensive work of all the

schools is, in fact, devoted to developing the sales force," observed a 1926

Carnegie Corporation-sponsored study of correspondence schools written

when the correspondence movement was at its peak (2).


The pursuit of profit tended inescapably to subvert the noble intentions - or

pretensions - of the enterprise, in what had become a highly competitive (and

totally unregulated) field. The students enrolled were required to pay the full

tuition fee, or a substantial part of it, up-front and most of the firms had a

no-refund policy. Yet roughly 90% of the students failed to complete their

course of study (3).


The remarkably high drop-out rate was not an accident. It reflected not only

the shameless methods of recruitment but also the shoddy quality of what was

on offer. For the actual "delivery" of courses - the correction of lessons and

grading exams - most firms relied upon a "sub-professional" workforce of

"readers" who worked part-time and were paid on a piecework basis per

lesson or exam.


These people often worked under sweatshop conditions. They had to deliver

a high volume of lessons to make a living and could therefore not manage

much by way of pedagogical performance. Such conditions were far from

conducive to the careful, individualised instruction promised in the companies'

promotional materials.


All of this made perfect economic sense, however. It was summed up in

correspondence industry jargon in the phrase "drop-out money": once

students dropped out there was no further expense and what remained of the

upfront payment was pure profit.


The economics of this cynical education system meant there was no incentive

to try to keep students on by improving the quality of course offerings. In fact

the reverse was true: recruitment rather than instruction remained the goal.


The evolution of correspondence instruction in the universities closely

paralleled that of the commercial schools. It began in earnest in the 1890s,

and by the 1910s and 1920s it had become a craze comparable with today's

passion for online distance education. Following the lead of the University of

Chicago, other institutions joined in, notably the state universities of

Wisconsin, Nebraska, Minnesota, Kansas, Oregon, Texas, Missouri,

Colorado, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and California. By 1919, when Columbia

University launched its home study programme, there were already 73

colleges and universities offering instruction by correspondence.


Emphasising the democratisation of education and hoping to tap into the

lucrative market exploited by their commercial rivals, the universities echoed

the sales pitch of the private schools. Hervey F. Mallory, head of the

University of Chicago Home Study Department, declared that "In the

crowded classroom of the ordinary American university it is impossible to

treat students as individuals, overcome peer pressure for conformity,

encourage students who are shy, slow, intimidated by a class setting". Home

study, by contrast, "takes into account individual differences in learning".


In short, correspondence education was seen as more than just an extension

of traditional education. It was an enhancement - a means of instruction less

costly and of higher quality - that signalled a revolution in higher education.


Although they were not per se for-profit organisations, the correspondence

programmes of the universities were self-supporting, and therefore profit

played its part. It was initially assumed that this new form of instruction would

be of greater economic value than traditional classroom-based teaching, but

its pioneers soon discovered that correspondence instruction was far more

costly to operate than they had imagined - primarily because of the overheads

entailed in administration. Almost from the outset, therefore, they found

themselves caught up in much the same game as their commercial rivals:

devising promotional schemes to boost enrolment in order to offset growing

administrative costs; reducing their course preparation and revision expenses

by standardising their repertory and relying on "canned courses"; and above

all keeping remuneration to a minimum by using casual employment and

paying by piece rate.


Before long, with a degraded product and a dropout rate almost comparable

to that of the commercial firms, they, too, had come to depend for their

survival on "drop-out money." At the end of the 1920s the university-based

programmes began to come under the kind of scrutiny and scathing criticism

hitherto reserved for the commercial schools. Abraham Flexner, one of the

nation's most distinguished and influential observers of higher education,

excoriated the American universities for their commercial preoccupations, for

having compromised their independence and integrity, and for having thus

abandoned their unique and essential social function of disinterested critical

and creative inquiry. The rush to cash in on marketable courses and the

enthusiasm for correspondence instruction, Flexner argued, "show the

confusion in our colleges of education with training. The universities have

thoughtlessly and excessively catered to fleeting, transient, and immediate

demands" and have "needlessly cheapened, vulgarised, and mechanised

themselves," reducing themselves to "the level of the vendors of patent

medicines" (4).


Likewise, he bemoaned as "scandalous" the fact that "the prestige of the

University of Chicago should be used to bamboozle well-meaning but

untrained persons by means of extravagant and misleading

advertisements". He assailed the "administrative usurpation of professorial

functions" and declared that "the American professoriate is a proletariat".


Flexner's critique of correspondence education, which gained widespread

media attention, sent shockwaves through academia, prompting internal

efforts to raise standards and curtail excessive and misleading advertising. At

Columbia, the blow was eventually fatal to the correspondence programme.


Rebirth of a 'revolution'


Thirty years later the General Accounting Office was warning Vietnam

veterans not to waste their federal funds on correspondence courses.

Subsequent investigations (5) and efforts at reform and regulation invariably

failed to change the picture, even though correspondence programmes

adopted the latest media of delivery, including film, telephone, radio,

audio-tapes, and television. Universities continued to offer correspondence

instruction, of course, but the efforts were much more modest in their claims

and ambitions. Poor cousins of classroom instruction, they were for the most

part confined to institutionally separate and self-supporting extensions and

carefully cordoned off from the campus proper, presumably to spare the core

institution the expense, the commercial contamination and the criticism.


Like their forebears, today's proponents of distance education believe they

are leading a revolution that will transform the educational landscape. Fixated

on technology and the future, they are unencumbered by the sober lessons of

this cautionary tale. If anything, the commercial element in distance education

is this time even stronger. For now, instead of trying to distance themselves

from their commercial rivals, the universities are eagerly joining forces with

them, lending their brand names to profit-making enterprise in exchange for a

piece of the action.


Four institutions prominent in the correspondence movement are at it again.

The University of Wisconsin has a deal with Lotus/IBM and other private

contractors, the University of California has contracts with America Online

and and the University of Chicago and Columbia are

among the most enterprising participants in the new distance education gold

rush. The new game is less about generating revenues from student fees than

about reaping a harvest from financial speculation in the education industry

through stock options and initial public offerings.


Columbia signed an agreement with Unext, a distance education start-up,

allowing it to use the school's logo in return for a share in the business. "I was

less interested in the income stream than in the capitalisation. The huge upside

essentially is the value of the equity in the IPO," explained Columbia's

business school dean, Meyer Feldberg (6). "I don't see a downside," he

added, betraying an innocence of Columbia's history that would make Flexner

roll over in his grave.


Last but not least, Columbia has now become party to an agreement with yet

another company which intends to peddle its core arts and science courses.

Columbia will develop courses and lend its brand name to the company's

product line in return for royalties and stock options. According to one

source, the company has already been busy recruiting faculty to the enterprise

as course developers and has suggested the possibility of using professional

actors to deliver them.


For the time being, however, until the actors arrive, the bulk of

university-based online distance education courses are being delivered by

poorly paid and overworked low status instructors, working on a per-course

basis without benefits or job security and being coerced to assign their rights

to their course materials to their employer as a condition of employment. In

short, the imperatives of commodity production are again in full force, shaping

the working conditions of instructors until they are replaced once and for all

by machines, scriptwriters and actors.


There are differences between the current rage for online distance education

and the earlier debacle of correspondence distance education. First, although

they began to take hold in extension divisions, commercial online initiatives

have already begun to penetrate deep into the heart of the university. Second,

if the overheads for correspondence courses were high, the infrastructural

expenses of online courses are higher still. Most notably, while

correspondence programmes were often aimed at a broad market, most of

their efforts remained regional. The ambitious reach of today's distance

educators, however, is global in scale, which is why the World Trade

Organisation is currently at work trying to remove all barriers to international

trade in educational commodities. Sometimes tragedy follows farce.




* Historian and professor at York University, Toronto, and author of The

Religion of Technology, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1997. This article is

part of the "Digital Diploma Mills" series available online at


1.The historical account of the university experience is based upon

hitherto unexamined archival records of four of the leading institutions

engaged in correspondence instruction: Columbia University and the

Universities of Chicago, Wisconsin, and California (Berkeley).

2.John Noffsinger, Correspondence Schools, MacMillan Company,

New York, 1926.

3.Noffsinger's survey of 75 correspondence schools, op. cit., shows that

only 2.6% of the enrolled students completed the courses they had


4.Abraham Flexner, Universities. American, English, German,

Oxford University Press, New York, 1930.

5.Notably the Carnegie Corporation-funded study by the Research

Project on Correspondence Education, 1968.

6.The Wall Street Journal, New York, 2 April 1999.