The International Correspondence Schools of Scranton, Pennsylvania (ICS) was founded in 1891 in the pages of Colliery Engineer and Metal Miner, a mining journal published in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. Due to an excessive amount of mining accidents, Thomas J. Foster, publisher of the journal, insisted that miners be educated in mine safety beyond what they learn from their apprenticeships. Therefore, the state of Pennsylvania passed the Mine Safety Act of 1885, requiring miners and inspectors to pass examinations on mine safety. The test was exhaustive and the language was incredibly confusing, especially for miners who spoke little or no English. One of the questions on the test read:
Many of the miners lacked the technical skill to answer such questions. After all, most of them had only a rudimentary education.
With their jobs in danger, miners demanded information to help prepare them for the examination. To assist them, Thomas J. Foster began publishing a "question and answer column" in the journal on mining methods and mining machinery. Later, the column was renamed the "correspondence column." Foster invited miners to send questions and problems to the staff and they would answer them. The number of questions was so great the staff had trouble providing satisfactory solutions. In response, Foster began preparing correspondence courses in coal mining.
In an editorial for the October 1891 edition of The Colliery Engineer, the editor announced an arrangement between the journal and Alexander Dick, "an efficient and experienced Mining Engineer and Colliery Manager" to conduct a school of mining. The school would be known as "The Colliery Engineer School of Mines" with Dick serving as director. Until the International Textbook Company incorporated the school in late 1894, the names Colliery Engineer School of Mines, School of Mines, Correspondence Schools, and the International Correspondence School were used interchangeably. By early 1895, the school was officially known as the International Correspondence Schools of Scranton, Pennsylvania or ICS for short.
The editor encouraged the miners to enroll in the program with the knowledge that they were not simply earning a cheap diploma but one "secured after a hard examination, [that] will be looked upon by employers as a guarantee of ability in those who possess it." Furthermore, potential students were assured that the courses would be written in simple language, thus, ensuring that even those with only a base knowledge of English could take the courses.
The first class enrolled 500 miners. Within eight years, over 190,000 students had enrolled in the courses. In addition to ornamental design, commercial education, and the "English Branches," courses were offered in forty other engineering trades. For a brief period, the school offered facilities for students who wished to travel to Scranton, Pennsylvania for illustrated lectures on mining topics; the surveying and mapping course was discontinued within the year because students could not spare the time or the money to travel to Scranton to take the course. The course was altered to fit into a more manageable pamphlet format.
The success and profitability of the company can be traced in its physical growth from the two rooms in the Coal Exchange Building in Scranton, which housed the "School of Mines" in 1891, to two multistory buildings, costing more than $250,000 in 1899. By the first decade of the twentieth century, over 100,000 new students per year were enrolling in ICS courses; by 1910, a million cumulative enrollments had been achieved; and, by 1930, four million. By World War II, ICS's reputation was such that it was given the War Department contract to develop the department's training manuals. In 1916, ICS created The Woman’s Institute of Domestic Arts and Sciences in what is now the Scranton Preparatory School building. ICS was located on Wyoming Ave until 1958 when they relocated to Oak Avenue.
The tremendous success of ICS was the result of demand, an excellent product, a superb organization, prescient marketing and advertising, as well as a few happy coincidences. ICS's managers were skilled at using available resources and new technologies to their advantage. For instance, without a well-developed mail and parcel post system, no correspondence system could have succeeded. By the time ICS began selling its correspondence courses, the United States Post Office had eleven major mail distribution centers, stretching from Boston and New York to St. Paul and Fort Worth. These centers handled nearly eight billion pieces of mail annually over 140,000 miles of rail lines. Also, the U.S. Post Office introduced its rural free delivery system (RFD) in 1891. By 1916 three million people were served by RFD. ICS also made the mailing process even easier by sending self-addressed envelopes to their students along with their books and instruction papers. Although the U.S. Post Office did not begin its parcel post service until 1913, ICS's textbooks could be delivered by any one of the four independent parcel delivery companies. Therefore, ICS was able to get its product almost anywhere in the country very early in its existence, which was of great importance considering students were taking these courses for financial advancement.
ICS also offered its students a chance to enroll for courses on the installment plan, a marketing innovation begun by Singer to sell sewing machines in the 1850s. Courses could be paid for in advance or on a "sixty-days-same-as-cash" basis. Most students, however, opted for paying in three-, five-, or ten-dollar monthly installments. The installment plan was extremely important to most students, because some of the ICS courses were expensive. For example, in 1906, the "Complete Architecture" course cost $110 if paid in advance. The price rose to $122 on the ten-dollar plan, $130 on the five-dollar plan, and $135 on the three-dollar plan. These payment plans allowed people who did not earn much to take advantage of an incredible educational opportunity on a budget.
Also of great importance was the ICS educational philosophy. The proprietors of ICS realized that "practical men with small education [we] re in the majority," and therefore directed all of their initial efforts to this group. Once the business was established, the self-described mission of the school was to provide "practical men with a technical education, and technical men with a practical education." The school reflected the beliefs of Thomas Edison, who stated that he "did not like the ‘practical’ electrician, because he does not know enough about the nature of the case to be intrusted to him, and on the other hand, he [did] not fancy the theoretical electrician, simply because he [was] 'too helpless.'"
ICS’s success is owed to its understanding the market and its prospective students. Influenced by the popular Horatio Alger books, people were looking to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and climb the social and economic ladder. In 1908 ICS proclaimed:
Our courses are all prepared from a utilitarian standpoint; that is, it is always kept in view that the reason the student is taking one of our courses is that he desires to put the knowledge obtained into immediate practical use. We are not aiming to train the mind, but to give the student such information regarding the principles, theory, and practice as he can use with the position he is aiming to fill.
ICS stressed promotion and upward economic mobility, not the moral uplift favored by the majority of the nineteenth-century education reformers. ICS’s success proved that working men and women were thinking along the same lines.
To achieve its goal, ICS did not instruct its students by standard textbooks, which it believed often contained extraneous amounts of material and "demand[ed] too great a knowledge of mathematics and other subjects." Instead, ICS created its own specially prepared, leather-bound "Instruction and Question Papers," which provided exactly the information the student needed and questioned him only on that material.
By the 1990s greater educational offerings had reduced the role of correspondence schools, and ICS has changed names a number of times since 1996. The ICS location is currently operated by Penn Foster Career School, which is a regionally and nationally accredited post-secondary distance education school and considers ICS to be its predecessor. Although the goals and offerings of ICS have changed considerably, its importance in the American education system cannot be underestimated. At its peak, the International Correspondence Schools and its contemporaries offered many working men and women their only chance at "education for success."
Aurand, Harold. W. "Education of the Anthracite Miner." Proceedings of the Canal History and Technology Symposium IV June 14 and 15, 1985: PP. 93-103.
Keary, Kathleen Marie. "The Foundation and Development of the International Correspondence Schools." Master’s Thesis. Marywood College. Scranton, PA 1935.
Watkinson, James D. "'Education for Success': The International Correspondence Schools of Scranton, Pennsylvania." Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 120(4) October 1996: PP. 343-369.