This post reviews Robert Hampel, “The Business of Education: Home Study at Columbia University and the University of Wisconsin in the 1920s and 1930s.” in Teachers College Record 112, no. 9 (September 2010): 2496-2517.
Hampel, a professor at the University of Delaware and respected colleague, here provides a fascinating look at a once popular but now largely forgotten form of education that was based in the home. In the early 20th century millions of Americans enrolled in all sorts of programs by correspondence. Most of them enrolled in classes with for-profit companies who often promised the moon, used aggressive recruitment strategies, and played hardball if you failed to make payments. But several thousands of Americans also took study-at-home courses from the nation’s universities. In earlier work Hampel has given us fine history of the for-profit companies. Here he looks at the universities.
Specifically, Hampel examines the home study programs at Columbia University and the University of Wisconsin. In both cases he compares the university’s programs with those of the for-profit companies with which they were in competition. For profit outfits used “brazen” and frequently misleading advertising, spent a considerable share of their budget on recruiters who used every trick in the book to drum up business (and received commissions for doing so), and used every legal means available to make customers who had signed up on an installment plan keep paying even if they dropped out of the program (which the vast majority did). It all seems remarkably timely, as many of the for-profit online universities that have been so much in the news of late are doing much the same thing.
Were the universities of the early 20th century so brash? Hampel digs into the archives to find out. And the answer, in general, is no. But beyond the simple truth that university home study offerings were not overhyped, were not marketed to the sort of student who would likely not be able to finish or pay, and were actually quite affordable compared to the for-profit companies’ products, there were other factors that contributed to either the success or failure of university efforts.
Columbia University’s home study program, for example, was ultimately a failure. Partly this was precisely because the university did not resort to strong-arm tactics. Only about 19% of students who signed up for Columbia’s home study courses actually finished the programs. That meant that the great majority who signed up never paid up. But Columbia did not refer these students to collection agencies or file lawsuits to recover their balance due. After seven straight years of net losses Columbia University’s President Nicholas Murray Butler decided, in 1937, to pull the plug. Columbia’s commitment not to use the sorts of tactics that were giving home study a bad name was honorable, but it kept the program in the red during the Great Depression.
Could it have been otherwise? Was the only choice financial success through misleading advertising, predatory recruitment, and draconian collection practices, or financial ruin through modesty and forgiveness of debts? For a third way Hampel points to the University of Wisconsin, which was able to craft a more successful home study program. How?
First of all, Wisconsin followed the lead of the for-profits and used recruiters called field agents. But these were not your typical slick salesmen. They worked on salary rather than commission, and most of them were educators as well as publicists. Secondly, Wisconsin’s courses were very cheap compared to the competition but required payment in full at the beginning. Finally, and most importantly, Wisconsin’s approach was to avoid recruitment from the general population. Instead, they worked mostly with Wisconsin high schools, explaining their programs to local administrators, who would frequently give the field agents time with graduating seniors. Wisconsin’s program allowed students to count home study courses to their college degrees at the University of Wisconsin provided that they passed an equal number of courses on campus. This was a very attractive option and it made home study a true extension of the university system rather than a stand-alone country cousin. Hampel summarizes, “From the start, [Wisconsin home study] 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.” (p. 2511)
Atypically for a historical piece, Hampel concludes by reflecting on the meaning of these historic models of university-sponsored home study for our own time. His first point is that the gradual expansion of University systems to include branch campuses and community colleges made home study largely unnecessary, as landed tertiary public education was increasingly available close to home. But why satellite campuses rather than a robust statewide home study program? Hampel thinks it turned out that way largely because universities did not get their faculty behind the home study option and did not create high-level curricula for it. If they had, and if home study courses had been offered for the same credit one could get at a landed campus, it’s quite possible that what now seems so novel–online college classes–wouldn’t have been novel at all.
Hampel ends on a somewhat sanguine note about current distance education. He thinks this time ’round colleges are doing a better job trying to understand the needs of online learners and are working out curricula that takes advantage of the unique opportunities for learning the online experience makes possible. He thinks this time we may get it right and that students who sign up for the programs will actually finish them. I hope so, but some of the for-profits currently driving the online learning spike seem to me to have a lot in common, and not in a good way, with the more predatory firms of the past–aggressive recruitment by agents working on commission, horrible retention rates, and a very questionable product. Hopefully the scrutiny such companies have recently come under by Congress and other bodies will lead to some housecleaning, and programs with more integrity will win the day and fulfill Hampel’s predictions.
All in all I thoroughly enjoyed Dr. Hampel’s presentation, especially the refreshing and unapologetic connection of his historical material with current educational policy. Among historians of education it is controversial to do this, for it smacks of “functionalism,” the tendency to make history just prolegomena to public policy and in the process do violence to the past by anachronistically forcing our own assumptions and categories backward. Hampel I think avoids that here. His history is sensitive to its own time and place, but the lessons he derives from it are nevertheless relevant to our own. Both historians of higher education and current policymakers would find this a rewarding text to ponder.