Penn Foster Then & Now

The mission of Penn Foster is deeply connected to its educational roots from the 19th century - to educate workers and help them improve their expertise, job skills and workforce safety. Today, Penn Foster specializes in several academic areas including accredited workforce development, high school completion and college degree programs, and career diploma and certification programs.

Penn Foster began in northeastern Pennsylvania in 1890. Penn Foster, formerly known as the International Correspondence School, was founded when Thomas J. Foster, publisher and editor of the Mining Herald in Shenandoah, Pa., helped revolutionize workforce training - and, unbeknownst to him, the future of online education.

ICS Beginnings & the Rise of Mining Education

Mine Safety Act of 1885

In the late 1880s, the mining industry was in distress over a large number of mining accidents. Thomas J. Foster responded by advocating miner safety programs and insisting miners undergo safety training beyond apprenticeships to prevent more mining disasters from happening. The state of Pennsylvania took action and the legislature passed the Mine Safety Act of 1885, which instated a law requiring mining foremen, inspectors and supervisors to pass an exam testing mine safety.

Lack of Preparation & Technical Skill

The test was exhaustive and challenging for miners with only a rudimentary education, according to The University of Scranton. The language confused miners who spoke little or no English. They knew their jobs were at risk unless they could understand the questions and pass the exam.

To help prepare miners for the test, Foster transformed pages of the Mining Herald into an educational resource. He printed sample problems, copies of old exams and a Q&A column crowdsourced by readers. Miners submitted their questions and problems. Staff provided answers and solutions.

The Question and Answer Column was later renamed as the Correspondence Column covering mining methods, mining machinery, arithmetic, mensuration and formulas. Interest in the column rapidly gained in popularity among coal miners, fostering the need for more specialized information, special instructional materials and correspondence courses on mining.

The Colliery Engineer School of Mines

Foster set out to meet this growing need by working with practicing engineers to create easy-to-understand educational pamphlets that included text, practice problems and a final exam. Foster then moved to Scranton, and in 1888, he changed the name of the newspaper (and publishing company) to the Colliery Engineer. In a partnership with Alexander Dick, a mining engineer and colliery manager, the journal established a school of mining known as The Colliery Engineer School of Mines (known more predominantly as the International Correspondence School or ICS). ICS offered its first complete correspondence course on coal mining in 1891.

Building a Future in Academia & Workforce Training

Early Success

ICS, known at the time as the world's largest home-study school, had 114 enrollments in 1891 and grew to enroll more than 250,000 students in less than a decade. Ten years later, nearly one million students enrolled in ICS. The following benchmarks highlight the early success of Foster's vision and ICS:

  • Thomas J. Coates, a coal miner from Peckville, Pa., was the first student to enroll in a three-year program for $25 on October 16, 1891. He went on to become the Hudson Coal Company superintendent.
  • Successful surveying and mapping classes expanded to include mechanical drawing by correspondence and mechanical and electrical engineering.
  • The curriculum went on to include courses in steam engineering, electricity, architecture, plumbing, civil engineering and heating.
  • An administration building (the Finch building) was the first building constructed to house the increasing number of staff members.
  • The Haddon Craftsmen Printery was erected in 1906 for the Education Department and printery. It accommodated composing rooms, press rooms and the bindery that produced 250 textbooks for more than 100 courses.
  • ICS expanded from a single coal mining course to 259 courses in engineering, business and vocational fields.

A New Direction

During the 1920s, ICS faced financial threats because of WWI and a loss of overseas students. But with renewed financing, ICS was able to prevent job loss and reorganize toward greater innovation in a time of economical and industrial expansion. Foster resigned as president in 1916 and was succeeded by Ralph E. Weeks, a Scranton merchant and bank director. From the 1920s to the early 2000s, ICS evolved in the following ways:

  • Established a resident school offering supplemental instruction for railroad employees.
  • Founded the Woman's Institute of Domestic Arts and Sciences specializing in dressmaking, cookery and millinery. Throughout the Woman's Institute's 25 years, it employed a staff of more than 900 employees and enabled students to purchase and ship fabrics.
  • Developed military skills training and educational programs for civilians and the armed services, supplying more than 15 million texts to the United States Armed Forces Institute, according to an 2012 issue of The Miner's Lamp, the newsletter of the Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum and Iron Furnaces Associates.
  • Enrolled returning service members in correspondence courses during the 1940s.
  • Expanded its academic scope to provide greater opportunities and meet the specific needs of students as a nontraditional educational institution.
  • Relocated in 1958 to just outside of Scranton to accommodate vast growth.
  • Partnered with industrial and union clients to set up training programs, complementing ICS's own employee developmental programs.
  • Offered a correspondence collegiate education, including associates degrees in specialized business and technical fields provided by the Center for Degree Studies.

Online Distance Learning Provider

Penn Foster Today

The institution started to transition into an online distance learning provider in 2003 and officially became Penn Foster in 2005. The Wicks Group first acquired Penn Foster in 2007, and then in 2009, Penn Foster was acquired by The Princeton Review, a leader in helping students achieve their higher education goals.

Today, Penn Foster is a standalone company that remains dedicated to helping more than 133,000 students gain an education, learn workforce skills and advance toward a career in the U.S. and worldwide. Since ICS was founded in 1890, more than 13 million students have enrolled globally and changed their lives through education.

Penn Foster continues to help nontraditional students and adult learners create better futures through its accredited college and career programs. With each graduating student, Penn Foster honors its celebrated academic history, which all began with Thomas J. Foster's noble pursuit to improve coal mining safety and education.