Heritage Series Part IV: One Last Look Back

For close to a year now, we’ve been looking back at the history of career college education. From 1709 and a loose beginning with Benjamin Franklin to the World Wars and creation of the GI Bill, we have chronicled the continued growth and development of the institutions providing skilled training to those looking to make better lives for themselves and their families. Our intent in doing this was to highlight two things:

1. The deep, historic roots and strong foundation of career colleges that at times has been shaken but has never given in.

2. The uncanny parallels today’s schools share with institutions of the past.

Our storied history should continue to bring us confidence in what lies ahead. Other institutions have survived unprecedented strife and learned to develop — and even grow — at times when our nation struggled intensely. The founders of our institutions and school owners of yesteryear survived and thrived by finding creative approaches to building their organizations while America faced new challenges — a Great Depression, wars, racial strife, and countless other political and social obstacles.

In this fourth and final installment of the Heritage Series, we highlight some of the major events and accomplishments featured in our past articles that forever left a mark on career education. This is our way of presenting a concise picture of how far our schools have come — and the unceasing strength they have to accomplish even more in the future.

The Beginning: 1709

According to historians, the details about the first private schools devoted to training for business are unclear. But what is evident is that private schools offered vocational or business education years before our public education system was created.

With New York and Boston becoming important trade centers for the colonies, the art of bookkeeping was formalized. Many tutors offered instruction in bookkeeping in these cities before 1700. We know for certain that John Green offered it in Boston in 1709, and George Brownell taught bookkeeping in New York in 1731.

The first recorded school to teach vocational subjects was more than likely the Academy of Philadelphia. Benjamin Franklin founded the school in 1749. The Academy later became the University of Pennsylvania, but its earliest incarnation educated area merchants in subjects such as arithmetic; accounts; the history of commerce; and French, German and Spanish. Originally, Franklin intended the Academy to teach practical subjects, especially English. But gradually that focus was lost, and it became a traditional college. The Academy dropped English for Latin, and whatever interest had been built in teaching vocational subjects evaporated.

This trend has continued to the present day as career colleges begin with the intent to provide career-specific training and eventually follow a path to more traditional education, often in hopes of drawing in more students for longer education cycles.

A major invention: 1868

Maybe the biggest revolution for career schools was led by the invention of the typewriter in 1868. The instrument brought about another major change in the American workforce as the enormous growth of business-related paperwork ensured that the time-saving typewriter was here to stay. Almost immediately, career colleges began adding courses in typewriting instruction to their list of programs. Women began flooding schools to acquire what was becoming an invaluable job skill.

In many ways, the typewriter ushered in the transition from men to women in clerical positions in American businesses. Soon, typewriting, accounting and shorthand became the core courses in the business education curriculum in most career colleges. They remained the bread-and-butter courses for many schools for decades — until the introduction of the computer.

Introducing the National Association of Accredited Commercial Schools

Career colleges continued their significant growth to the end of the century, and that growth would lead to the need for schools to organize and eventually develop a code of standards.

Horses, buggies and career education ... the year is 1912. In this same year, the National Association of Accredited Commercial Schools (NAACS) was founded. At the request of Benjamin Franklin Williams, president of Capital City Commercial College of Des Moines, Iowa, 22 additional school administrators took time from their hectic schedules and came to Chicago for a meeting with him at the Hotel La Salle. At this meeting, the 23 private career school leaders entered into an alliance that developed into the Association of Independent Colleges and Schools. Although their schools represented only a fraction of the 155,000 men and women studying in private business schools at the time, these men established the foundation of an association that would eventually have a tremendous impact on the private career sector. 

The original mission of the National Association of Accredited Commercial Schools, as set forth by founder Ben Williams, was “to develop and maintain higher educational, business and ethical standards in commercial education, and insofar as may be legal, proper and desirable, to protect the interest and enlarge the usefulness of member schools.” Although “accredited” appeared in the name of the association, it did not have the same meaning it has today. Accreditation in the NAACS sense referred to the acceptance of an institution’s application for membership, although this meaning changed later. 

Major historical events occurred both within and outside the environment of vocational education during the first 25 years of NAACS’ existence. World events, including those that involved the United States, were a “mixed bag” from 1912 through 1937. By the early 20th century, the United States had established itself as an industrial and agricultural giant. A spirit of optimism, backed up by large doses of economic growth and development, prevailed. The great temples of commerce, such as the Empire State Building in New York City and the Wrigley Building in Chicago, provided physical evidence of the prosperity of the times. Management philosophy and practice took on the flavor of a discipline, and the vocational arts and sciences thrived.

Increasing competition

The NAACS faced strong and increasing competition from the public sector in the early years. In 1915, just after the formation of NAACS, the National Education Association appointed a committee to develop business curricula for public high schools. In 1917, the Smith-Hughes Act made federal funds available to schools that provided business training on a part-time basis to employed individuals. And in 1937, the George-Dean Act was passed, allotting funds to teachers, supervisors and teacher trainers in the area of distributive education. These actions in the public sector of vocational education created formidable challenges to private career schools.

Technological progress also increased rapidly during NAACS’ first 25 years. Electricity became generally available and revolutionized the way people lived and worked. Radio linked all parts of the nation together in a network of instant communication. Railroads and automobiles had made travel faster and more practical. Automatic calculating machines, mechanically improved typewriters, recording machines and telephones improved office procedures.

The war to end all wars

After World War I ended, many veterans chose to be trained for office work or other business-related activity in NAACS-member schools as part of this joint rehabilitation effort.

War and its aftermath brought thousands of students to America’s career colleges. And yet following the conclusion of World War I and the Great Depression, still more traumatic times were ahead for America and its colleges. 

Optimism and prosperity that began after World War II continued as NAACS approached its half-century birthday. Many Americans utilized their educational opportunity and began climbing the socioeconomic ladder. With the aid of the GI Bill and guaranteed government loans, many veterans were able to further their education, buy homes and start businesses. The demand for quality education increased and do did the private career sector’s role in providing educational options. The job market began to expand as did the demand for new study programs, up-to-date equipment and facilities.

One issue of vital importance to the survival and growth of private career colleges was increased competition from the public — or traditional — college and university sector. To remain competitive, private career colleges updated their curricula and introduced night classes. At the Pace Institute in New York City, administrators decided to offer quality programs at convenient times and instituted summer day and evening sessions. Convenient course times became a Pace specialty, and the response was significant. Pace Institute continued to expand despite tremendous competition from public colleges in New York City.

Hopefully, this series of historical articles has proven to be informational and perhaps even educational. The story of our sector’s endurance in tough times is an inspiration to many — and often a ray of light in dark times. Thank you for reading.