While the birth and growth of America’s colonial and land grant colleges has documented in detail, there has been much less interest in the developments which were taking place outside of the traditional college.  While the traditional colleges only catered for an elite 5% of young men, educational entreprenurs during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries taught classical subjects as well as vocational courses in commercial arithmetic, languages, bookkeeping, surveying, navigation, building and mechanical trades.  These for-profit colleges enabled non-elites to enter the legal and medical professions and taught subjects in a way that no other college could or would teach.

Following developments in trade and the growth of commercial organizations across the US, it was not until the start of the nineteenth century that this new sector began to emerge.  James Gordon Bennett opened one of the first business colleges in New York in 1824.[1]

Important developments within this emerging sector occurred in the 1850s with the opening of a number of chains of business colleges, including the Draughton and Eastern colleges and the Bryant Stratton chain, which opened in 1853 and would eventually include fifty colleges located in many cities across the US.  Some of the other early pioneers in business education included R.M Bartlett of Cincinnati, Peter Duff of Pittsburgh, G.N. Comer of Boston, Jonathon Jones of St Louis and Dolbear of New York.

According to the Bureau of Education, by the end of the nineteenth century there were 341 for-profit business colleges operating across the US, employing 1,764 instructors and enrolling 77,746 students.  While these for-profit business colleges were the first to enter the market, they faced considerable competition from correspondence schools.  For example, in 1883 the Correspondence University was formed in New York which offered ‘at low cost helpful instruction by correspondence to such persons as could not leave their homes for attendance at established institutions of learning’.  In 1910, there were over two hundred correspondence schools across the US, with one of the largest being the International Correspondence Schools of Scranton, which employed five hundred instructors, provided instruction in 203 subjects and claimed to have enrolled 1,281,800 students over the previous twenty years.

The corporation school also competeted in this sector with the first being opened in the early 1870s by the R. Hoe Printing Company of New York.  The National Association of Corporation Schools was established in 1913 and by 1921 there were 131 Class A members.  The purpose of the association was to develop the efficiency of the individual employee, increase efficiency in industry and to influence courses of established educational institutions more favourably towards industry.  Corporation schools were also organised and operated by trade associations, including the American Institute of Banking which established the Knowledge City Chapter which provided education in banking and the principles of law and economics.  They also established and maintained a recognized standard of education using official examinations and issuing certificates of graduation.  Finally, the Chicago Central Station Institute was founded in 1912 as the Bureau of Education for the Commonwealth Edison Company, Federal Sign System (Electric), Illinois Northern Utilities Company, Middle West Utilities Company, and the Public Service Company of Northern Illinois.  Its mission was to organise and conduct special educational courses for present and prospective employees of the supporting companies (for further details see Education for Business by Leverett Lyon, 1922).

In short, this new, entrepreneurial and highly competitive service sector appeared to be helping to meet the education and training needs of  a rapidly expanding workforce.   This begs the question, what has happened to all of these earlier pioneers in the business of education?  A clue is provided in the following quotation from 1913 by the Secretary of Commerce, William Redfield:

Let me suggest that while we must not forget the great debt we owe to the private vocational schools, the future of this education lies in the hands of the public school.  The private industrial schools have the beacons which have lighted the course on which the ship of state must now sail (NSPIE, 1913, p.94).

[1]  This is the same James Gordon Bennett, who went on found the New York Herald in 1835, and whose son James Gordon Bennett Jr became known for his flamboyant and playboy lifestyle. In 1877 he left New York after ending his engagement to socialite Caroline May after arriving late and drunk to a party at the May family mansion, and urinating into the fireplace in full view of his hosts.  Bennett’s controversial reputation is said to have inspired the phrase “Gordon Bennett!” which is still used as an expression of disbelief.  Incidentally, James Gordon Bennett Jr was also the man who charged Henry Morgan Stanley with locating Dr. Livingstone who had gone missing in action whilst exploring Africa.

An edited version of this article was originally published in Economic Affairs in March 2008