A Brief History (And Future) Of Online Degrees

Posted in Blog on 25 June 2015

In the beginning, about 125 years ago, there was the correspondence degree. Correspondence programs, pioneered in higher education by the University of London in the mid-19th century, reached mainstream America in the 1890s. Over the next century, while various universities played with other modalities including radio and television-based distance learning – most notably in the UK, with the Open University – correspondence degrees in the U.S. remained solidly grounded on paper and the U.S. Postal Service.

Before the 1990s, there was little sense amongst traditional universities that distance education should generate a profit or be in any way central to the institution – these programs operated on a cost-recovery basis and were relegated to the fringes (extension or continuing education divisions). While the lack of profit was ironic considering one of the pioneers of correspondence degrees, International Correspondence Schools (today’s Penn Foster), enrolled a total of 900,000 students by 1906, driven by a sales force of 1,200, it also made sense, given the view that correspondence degrees should serve universities’ educational outreach missions. By mid-century, state institutions like University of Maryland University College and University of Wisconsin Extension led the market.

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