Since its inception in 1890, Penn Foster has dedicated itself to enhancing students' lives by imparting the knowledge, skills and credentials to help students get started on their career path. In doing so, Penn Foster has paid tribute to the honor of skilled labor. From extending educational opportunities to miners, women and military personnel to reaching out to TV and Internet audiences, Penn Foster has brought the benefits of education to workers from all walks of life. As the school celebrates its 125th year of operation, Penn Foster's long history of helping hardworking people learn more testifies to its commitment to its mission.

From Coal Mines to College

Penn Foster emerged in the late 19th century out of founder Thomas J. Foster's concern for coal miners.1 Foster, a Pennsylvania newspaper publisher, had become an advocate for miner safety. To help uneducated miners pass a required safety test, Foster began using his newspaper to publish study aids, including a "Correspondence Column" where readers could send in questions. His innovative teaching method proved so successful that in 1890, he formally established what became known as the International Correspondence Schools (ICS). The curriculum was originally geared toward mining engineering, but Foster's method proved equally useful for other engineering applications, as well as related topics such as drafting. By the turn of the century, 190,000 students had enrolled in dozens of courses including engineering, math, science, English, and practical arts and crafts such as ornamental design.2 ICS made classes affordable by allowing students to pay in installments.

Bringing Distance Learning to Women

In 1916, fashion author Mary Brooks Picken helped found a branch of ICS for women called the Women's Domestic Institute, designed to teach skills such as sewing, dressmaking, hatmaking and cooking.3 The institute provided instruction and supplied women who did not live near major shopping centers with access to fabrics. Demand grew so rapidly that by 1920, the institute was teaching 66,500 students and had opened its own building across from ICS' main facility. One third of the student body was single, and nearly one in five intended to open their own business.

Training Military Personnel

ICS' success had also attracted the attention of the United States War Department, which had begun teaching correspondence courses in military training after World War I. ICS agreed to offer courses for the Marines and Coast Guard. By World War II, ICS had won a contract to develop War Department training manuals for both combat troops and home front workers.4

Reaching out to TV Viewers

In the postwar years, ICS used the new medium of television to expand its educational outreach. Celebrities such as William Shatner and Sally Struthers starred in a popular series of commercials offering viewers the opportunity to train at home for a better career.5,6 The ads highlighted curriculum that taught skills related to emerging technologies, including computer programming and repair and TV and VCR repair.

Expanding Educational Opportunities Online

In 2003, ICS began transitioning into online education, becoming what is known today as Penn Foster. In this new context, Penn Foster serves vital segments of the American labor force, including nontraditional students who need a flexible learning environment to obtain the skills and training for career success. What began as a newspaper column is now an online high school, career school and college that continues to serve Penn Foster's mission of helping hard workers learn more.


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Resources: (1) Penn Foster: A histroy of helping hardworking people learn more (2) "Education for Success": the International Correspondence Schools of Scranton, Pennsylvania (3)Women's Domestic Institute offered classes in homemaking: 'most important of all institutions'(4) International Correspondence Schools of Scranton, Pennsylvania 1897-1996 (5) William Shatner Infomercial 1993 (6) Sally Struthers commercial 1991