LaSalle Extension University, snail-mail generations' University of Phoenix

la-salle-smiling.jpg Look who's smiling now: this ad helped generate $440 million (in 2010 dollars) in just one year.

Correspondence schools took root in the United States after the University of Chicago began an innovative home study course for non-resident students. This inspired copycat businesses, and the granddaddy of them all was La Salle Extension University. In 1908, founder J.G. Chapline set up offices a few blocks from University of Chicago and began trading on their good reputation, often running ads right next to theirs in Cosmopolitan, Pearson's, National Geographic, Popular Mechanics, etc.

LaSalle offered a valuable service that helped many people. In segregated America, LaSalle offered opportunities for many African-Americans who might have had problems matriculating at their local schools. Many hard-working people with full-time jobs, including future governors, congressmembers, and senators, obtained degrees from LaSalle. LaSalle's most controversial program, their at-home bachelor's degree in law, was their greatest success, but also led to their eventual downfall in 1979. Between its meteoric rise and its decline and fall, LaSalle became the template for both University of Phoenix-type distance learning schools and diploma mills.

Like modern academia, a big part of the revenue involved selling overpriced books authored by instructors, so Chapline set up his own publishing company and recruited established authors to write textbooks. The result was remarkable. By the time the Federal Trade Commission stepped in during the 1970s to curb industry excesses like diploma mills, LaSalle had well over 100,000 active enrolled students and was clearing $75 million annually (over $440 million adjusted for inflation). Their aggressive direct response ad campaigns converted about 20% of inquiries. I pulled a few examples from their ad campaigns.

lasallemarquis1910.jpg The earliest ads were small classifieds, but by 1910 they were placing display ads in Marquis Who's Who, the vanity publication still in business today. The ads showed a stately castellated building similar to those at University of Chicago. They not only located their headquarters near University of Chicago's campus, but they also placed ads next to U of C's, and even ran in U of C's alumni magazine. By 1914, they were running highly targeted ads, like the ads in International Socialist Review stating "Every SOCIALIST Should Know LAW! Become A LAWYER!"

Thumbnail image for lasalleintsocrev1915.jpgThere was always a populist bent to their ads, with their early slogan "Taking The University to the People." And they did just that, affording women and minorities a chance to get degrees. For instance, LaSalle law graduate Gertrude Rush was the first African-American woman admitted to the Iowa bar.

Money poured in, and LaSalle began to refine their message as advertising got more sophisticated. Ads became about setting oneself apart from competitors: "Are You the Ten-pin --or the Ball?" or "The Only Way Out of a Pit-- --UP!" quoting Jack London (noting he was "penniless and with only a scanty education" when he uttered this). One insidiously clever ad from 1930 was targeted at bosses, advising that a great way to blow off raise requests was to suggest the underling enroll at LaSalle and come back when he was done.

Thumbnail image for lasalle-popsci1945.jpgLaSalle was pulling in money hand over fist even during the Depression, which eventually brought them to the attention of the Federal Trade Commission. In 1937, FTC ordered that they no longer call themselves a University, though that order was lifted a year later. After a lull during World War II, business picked up again as GIs sought to set themselves apart from other applicants: "What's the DIFFERENCE between them? One a failure. One a success. Which One Are You?"

lasallebaseball1976.jpgLaSalle continued to grow in the 50s, to the point that their massive revenue caught the attention of major publishing houses. Crowell-Collier acquired them in 1961, then merged with textbook publishing giant Macmillan. By then the amount of money involved had led to an increase in unaccredited schools and diploma mills. The Higher Education Act of 1965 tried to remedy that, but the diploma mills then just moved to create bogus accrediting agencies in order to meet these new requirements. In 1969, with $50 million a year at stake, LaSalle sued accrediting agency National Home Study Council for monopoly and restraint of trade. They also began advertising much more aggressively, coming up with one of their best-known and most enduring ads: "Look who's smiling now!" The ad proved to be so effective that they updated it with a groovy 70s guy.

Alas, all the ads in the world could not help them escape the FTC, who sued them for misrepresentations about obtaining law degrees through a correspondence course. Following further litigation, LaSalle finally folded in 1980. Out of the ashes of the regulatory firestorm during the Carter Administration, a new challenger appears, rising like a... well, a phoenix. The University of Phoenix, founded in 1976, took over where LaSalle left off, eventually making the leap into the digital age. Their aggressive advertising uses the LaSalle model and has been even more successful than LaSalle: their holding company Apollo Group (NASDAQ:APOL) clears about $3 billion a year.

I created a Flickr set of LaSalle ads for those interested. This piece is based on several articles I originally wrote for Wikipedia.


  1. Like modern academia, a big part of the revenue involved selling overpriced books authored by instructors

    Evidently I was not apprised of this aspect of my vocation, which helps explain why I’m skint.

    1. Many professors teach their own work in their syllabi, requiring students to purchase those works. Before the web, college bookstores excelled at gouging students through this practice. To unskintify yourself, I recommend writing a college textbook for one of the four main publishing conglomerates. Or own a college bookstore. Or for maximum moolah, start a diploma mill.

      1. I’m pretty sure *none* of the revenue from my books goes to my university; and only one of my professors uses his own book (and in his case, it’s a field where most of the textbooks do stink).

  2. Start a diploma mill and UC Regent Richard C. Blum will invest in it. He invests heavily in diploma mills because students there still get government backed loans. Then when they cannot get jobs with their useless degrees, and thus cannot pay back the loans, taxpayers end up footing the bill. The institution thus gets paid, even though the degree was worthless. Terrible for the students but wonderful for people like Richard Blum who made tidy profits on such ventures.

  3. This idea that academics and universities generate oodles of money from book sales is patently false. A typical academic publishing contract will provide an author (of a textbook) with anywhere from 1-8% of the net profit from each sale. Advances, flat fees, or other income streams are generally unheard of. The university publishing houses are themselves often quasi-independent entities whose financial ‘success’ is not directly transfered over to the institution because any profits generated from a title are needed to simply keep the operation running (given the number of flops). Thus, rather than bathing in revenue, the university itself often receives nothing, nada, or zilch from book sales. This is not to say that some authors or institutions don’t enjoy a financial windfall from time to time, but this is not common.

    The scale of academic book sales and textbook sales is a lot less than you would expect. A blockbusting best seller is about 5,000 units all-time. Typically, academic materials are printing on a run of 400 units or less and about 50% of this gets sold. Thus, the high price is more often a function of the sunk costs that go into producing a book –regardless of the size of the run–than simple price gouging.

    Oh yeah, academics also do not receive any payment for writing journal articles or peer reviewing them. So, if you are looking to become rich from writing, academia is not the profession for you…

    1. Students typically spend about $1000 to $2000 annually on books and supplies (I believe the average is around $1500). That’s not an insubstantial sum as a percentage of total student expenses. At a school like UCLA, that’s about $57 million a year. I’d call that oodles of money.

      1. For most academic books, it works like leviathan says. Those students are spending their money on things like calculus books – not something that their university produces. In that market, it’s like soft drinks. There’s Coke (Thomas) and Pepsi (Stewart) and a slew of Faygo’s. Thomas is long since dead. Stewart is filthy stinking rich but the others aren’t raking in the big bucks.

  4. I realize that some do require their own books; I much prefer not to, for the ethical reasons you seem to be indicating. Even if I did, the financial benefit to me would be negligible: not enough to pay for a single dinner at a moderate restaurant.

    The big money lies, as you indicate, with standard textbook sales. I might enter that pool, if I were determined to make myself rich, but the competition in my field is well-established and of high quality; there’s just not much point in going up against such a rival. While three or four (humanities) textbook authors in any academic generation can buy a house or send a kid to college, for the rest of us it’s much as Leviathan says: unremunerated hard work, much of which goes unrecognized. As such, it might be worth your acknowledging that “the revenue” you describe does not generally go to academics-in-general; contrariwise, especially in a financial climate that encourages administrative belt-tightening and low budgets for library acquisitions and classroom texts, most of the academics I know are getting by for a great deal less than many ineffectual midlevel corporate employees.

    (Case in point: I was giving a talk about ten years ago to a study group of interested adults in a suburban setting. I described, as a digression, the various trials and privations one has to get through to attain the Ph.D., after which still few obtain full-time academic positions. They were startled, to say the least. Then I asked what an entry-level job for someone with a law degree paid at their corporations; they all estimated about $75,000, a good deal more than I was paid at the time after a dozen years teaching, a handful of books, and numerous articles.

  5. I heard in some detail the struggles of my insect taxonomy professor to keep his classic text on immature insects at a barely tolerable price, say, under $150. I came away persuaded that advanced texts are a pretty marginal business. I’ve encountered some of the writers of introductory level texts; clearly, they were doing well enough. The publishers of those textbooks, however, are almost always independent for-profit textbook publishers, not (almost always nonprofit) university presses. The textbook publishers are sort of villains in my book, as they seem to put out new editions with the sole purpose of messing up the used book market. But they aren’t the universities.

  6. The concept of diploma mills is an interesting one but the phrase is used, often, without much understanding. Many of these kinds of institutions are licensed by the state in which they operate – as educational facilities – as schools. Many people think that a school must be accredited to be legitimate, however, a college or university must be in existence for a minimum of 5 years to even apply for accreditation, often it takes much longer than that. Some universities, such as Harvard, have never bothered with applying. So legislation, such as one law passed in Colorado in the 90s, that outlaws such degrees, created the ridiculous situation where the students of a school licensed by the state of Colorado could no longer tell anyone that they had a degree without being guilty of fraud under the law. The article on LaSalle points out one great element of these kinds of educational facilities – they are open to anyone and they fulfill a great service. There is a large difference between them and a real diploma mill, which is a store front that sells you a diploma for money and no work at all. And . . . to make a point that is too often overlooked, there is a big difference between educaiton and schooling. The Wall Street bankers are schooled, hardly educated. Once upon a time the U.S. was more interested in education than schooling. THere was a time when colleges were known by their graduates, not the other way around.

    1. @stephenbuhner: Excellent points. The overuse of the term “diploma mills” has led to a lot of stigma around distance learning in general. One major difference between correspondence schools like LaSalle or Univeristy of Phoenix and a diploma mill is graduation rates. At a diploma mill, almost everyone graduates, because you’re basically paying for the degree without doing the work. At a correspondence school, the percentage of graduates tends to be significantly lower than a traditional school. It’s kind of like buying a piece of exercise equipment. A lot of people plunk down the cash with plans of following through, but then they do not complete that plan. In fact, here in California, University of Phoenix only graduated 4% of its online students in 2007.

      1. >At a correspondence school, the percentage of graduates tends to be significantly lower than a traditional school. It’s kind of like buying a piece of exercise equipment. A lot of people plunk down the cash with plans of following through, but then they do not complete that plan. In fact, here in California, University of Phoenix only graduated 4% of its online students in 2007.

        Slightly different topic… This part makes me wonder what you’re really paying for: the education, or the social atmosphere it takes place in. (some of both in the case of traditional schools, probably) Going off your exercise equipment example, I can workout at home alone, but I seem to get more satisfaction if I do it at the gym among other people (and I’ve heard repeated claims that you’re more likely to meet personal fitness goals if you employ personal trainers or go to group classes). I’m the same way with writing — I prefer to do it at the library or in the park, even if I don’t necessarily interact with anyone there.

        But it seems to me that the social element of education can be abused as well. You mentioned in your main article that women and minorities, perhaps the more self-motivated and ambitious ones, used places like LaSalle as a gateway to education at a time — inserting my own commentary here — when a significant number of colleges/universities were still exclusive white male social clubs which offered an education as a benefit for all its members, self-motivated or not. (I’ll omit observations about the times I’ve witnessed certain people being dragged kicking and screaming into success in both academic and career arenas, otherwise this comment could get long and rambly. Same thing with debates and complaints about “paying for knowledge,” as well as other people’s gripes about technical certifications being a fraud.)

  7. The problem I have with your statement is that you say is a “big part of academia”. You cite UCLA, but that figure is for ‘books and supplies’ and is an estimate from their financial aid office. Even assuming that figure is correct, since UCLA is over a 9 billion dollar a year industry in the county alone, that 57 million would not amount to 1% and in my mind is not a ‘big part’ of academia.
    That said, I believe the high cost of books is a big problem for many students, but professors and bookstores are not raking it in. The make more money on merchandising sales than books.
    I also believe if you ask most professors, they will complain about the price of textbooks as well. There are only a select few who make any real money on them.
    There are, however, many projects and resources for professors to ‘make their own’ materials using high quality information and media. The CAPL project seeks to provide media to teachers of foreign languages, for example, 100% commercial free and free of charge.
    Also, try for other academic resources to ‘make your own’ textbook.
    I have stopped requiring textbooks four years ago and while initially it meant more work for me to prepare my courses, it has resulted in greater quality in my classes. It always tastes better home made. ;)

  8. @AKMA – a little over ten years ago, I completed a PhD in the humanities and started the job search process. While getting my first few applications out, I did temp work to bring in a little income. When I was offered a full-time position as a business analyst for as much or more than the starting salary for many of the tenure-track positions I was looking at (and which were exceedingly rare), I made the decision to not enter academia, thus saving myself the adjunct position tap dance that many of my fellow new PhDs went through, and allowing myself to be close to my parents in their final years.

    I briefly considered becoming an academic editor instead (and was even interviewed for a job or two). I found that this field was even less well-paid than academia. People in both fields, if they stick with it, eventually do OK, but it takes them years. No one gets rich–not in the humanities, at least.

  9. college texts are a scammy racket
    sorry for the hurty feeling academicos

    truth beauty
    beauty truth

    PS: more please on diff/distinction between schooling vs. education

  10. My grandfather received his law degree from LaSalle and practiced law in Florida, eventually becoming the oldest practicing lawyer in the state. He did a lot of business with Afro Americans in the town, often accepting chickens and other food in lieu of cash payment. He was a bit of an odd duck but he did a lot of good during his life for those less fortunate.

    1. Do you know more about your grandfather or have anything else to share? Seems like an interesting person. Would love to know more about his career and why he did what he did.

  11. I’m glad someone wrote in to point out how little professors (and their institutions) make from textbook sales. Textbooks are very expensive from a student’s/parent’s perspective — so is tuition! But just because something is painfully expensive it doesn’t mean someone is ‘screwing you’ by greedily raking in dough. Sometimes things are expensive because that’s just how much it costs to offer the good or service.

    I had a professor (textbook author) tell me that he was invited to a conference of authors once, few of whom were textbook authors, most having written for the general public. Several were discussing how they invested their royalties. ‘I put mine in CDs’, my professor recalls replying. That is, once every few months he could afford a music album.

    That story may have been exaggerated a little but I’ve heard the same thing from other profs so I think the kernel is true.

  12. At my old university, I’m not sure they take in any direct revenue from textbook sales. They receive rent from the book store (operated by Barnes and Nobels; they pay for the space) but I think that’s it.

  13. “Like modern academia, a big part of the revenue involved selling overpriced books authored by instructors”

    What is your evidence for this claim? This, as I understand your position, is a component of your thesis: contemporary academia makes money (lots, you seem to suggest) by gouging their students on textbook requirements. Presumably, this is intuitive to those who don’t know anything about how academia works because even the ignorant know that (a) students generally are required to purchase texts for their courses, (b) texts are crazy-expensive, and (c) on occasion–rare in my experience, which is a number of years at one side of the lectern or the other–profs will use their own texts. But, you are not supposed to be among the ignorant in this regard, certainly not by the time you published this piece, anyway; you don’t have the luxury of appealing to mere intuition. This is fantastically sloppy journalism–if that’s what you are trying to pass this off as. I would expect better fact-checking from a high school news paper. And, this sort of sloppiness really diminishes the likelihood that others will cite this site, accept it as a credible source.

    First, colleges rarely make any money themselves off of the textbook sales, depending on the book distributer they use, the deal they cut, etc. The real money-makers at college and university book stores are the bits-and-bobs that people tend to get while purchasing their books (college-branded items, notebooks, pens, computer peripherals, etc). And, this money certainly does not make its way over to the Dean’s side of the institution in any direct or obvious way. That is, there is no in-built incentive for getting students to buy pricey texts. I know that I am not alone in having spent a few hours searching for a text as good as X, but not as pricey. I know I’m not alone, because this is what I learned, what I observed, among the professoriate tutoring me. (I teach in the humanities, and most of my course-work was in the same.) Given this background, it’s more than a little insulting that you assert–without evidence–that gouging the student body when the opportunity arises (or can be manufactured) is what motivates college educators, is what drives our business. In the case of a professor-authored text, the royalties are stunningly small, particularly when compared to the number of hours invested in producing it. In order to make money this way–that is, in order to pull in money in sums you’d actually have to claim on your annual income tax–you’d have to have way more than 60 students purchasing it (assuming 30 students per section, 2 per prof, per semester). Setups in which all instructors teach from the same texts would certainly drive up these numbers but are pretty rare (again, in the humanities) outside of community colleges and vocational programs; and, in those cases, the text author is not likely on staff.

    In short, not only have you failed to convince me that your reasoning is sound, or research solid, you’ve actually managed to make me question your credibility/competence–whatever it is that gave rise to this journalistic malpractice. So, I’m left wondering: Was it really 1936? Did the ads occur where you said, when? Are they really suggestive of what you claim they are? How about those numbers? Are they right? I can’t know. Nor can any of your other readers. You leave us in the unfortunate position of either generalizing from your opening–and glaring–error or simply bracketing everything you say, not as dubious in and of itself, but as issuing from a suspect source.

    There is another term for blog entries from a suspect source: unread.

      1. Yeah, I’ve issues with this piece, which I detailed well enough (I thought).

        Errors are one thing–like a possible typo identified by @knodi, #13. It happens. One hopes that the editorial staff catches it, but things like number/letter transposition, misplaced decimal points, proper name spelling, etc. can be awfully hard to catch, especially if one is not a subject matter expert. But building an argument around the idea that profiteering and higher edu have historically–and still do–travel hand in hand is not this sort of oops. This seems like a straightforward empirical claim that is either true or false. And, since it is not obvious which is the case, evidence is needed. The basics of journalism, I thought.

        But, the idea that someone can claim, in essence, that a profession, as a profession, largely is about gauging their client base (profs, their students), that modern academia is, in this respect, comparable to a diploma mill is insulting. Now, sometimes the truth hurts. Fine. It just seems to me that if one is going to commit in print, publicly, to such a comparison (a charge, really), then the evidential standard is, or at least should be, high. Perhaps this only shows that I’m thin-skinned and not (as I allege) that this blog entry is sloppy beyond acceptable. But, I don’t think this is just an idiosyncrasy of mine (even if I’m more verbose than most). And, I think that the other comments bear this out.

    1. “In short, not only have you failed to convince me that your reasoning is sound, or research solid, you’ve actually managed to make me question your credibility/competence–whatever it is that gave rise to this journalistic malpractice.”

      Although the phrasing of her statement may be misleading to people not familiar with the workings of ‘academia’, it seems to me that you are being unfair here:

      “Like modern academia, a big part of the revenue involved selling overpriced books authored by instructors, so Chapline set up his own publishing company and recruited established authors to write textbooks.”

      The phrasing here is unfortunate. Melbergeron, you cannot deny that SOMEBODY is making a pretty big chunk cash off from these textbooks. And I think we can agree that it is not the schools themselves nor the authors themselves who are seeing most of the cash. And Andrea does not say the contrary.

      Here’s how I would interpret it: Chapline noticed that there is a lot of money to be made in the academic text book publishing business, which is still the case in academia today. So he got some big name authors, set up a PUBLISHING COMPANY and made a lot of money that way, too, in addition to his university.

      You can accuse Andrea of sloppy/ambiguous/unclear phrasing, but anything more that is going too far and making assumptions about her argument that are completely unfounded. I would go so far as to say that your post shows not Andrea’s poor journalism, but your inability to evaluate an argument honestly.

    2. whatever it is that gave rise to this journalistic malpractice

      I think we have our first nominee for most melodramatic refutation of the year.

  14. Hmmm. touchy touchy academics.

    Yes the textbook “industry” is a grand scam.
    I bought three books for classes, this semester.

    Two “textbooks” and one book targeted at professionals. the textbooks (in paperback, to add insult to injury) were $130 and $150 USD respectively. The third book? $35.
    Books selling at around double or more the cost of comparable books sold on the free market is GOUGING, people.
    It doesn’t matter whether the publisher or the author or the college bookstore is the one taking home the ill-gotten gains.

    BTW. I remember seeing ads for LaSalle in magazines when I was little. This writeup tells a history I would not have otherwise learned. Thanks!

  15. I remember an article in Reader’s Digest a few years back about this. A professor doesn’t have to write their own textbooks and make their students purchase them to make money. Textbook publishers will often request that professors try out their new books and offer financial compensation to those who use those books in their class. There were some examples in it of professors who would actively try to use those books in order to get money in order to buy new things for their house, for instance. Unfortunately, I don’t remember when this article was published, but it was a few years ago.

  16. I took a business class at a state college in CA and the text was authored by the founder of the department. If there is a worse proof read text I’ve yet to see it. Each student got a 20 page handout with corrections that were still needed several editions later.
    At the same college there was a much beloved prof who taught statistics who waved students off from buying the text listed for the course. Instead he suggested a used text that was available cheap that contained some tables we needed and he supplied handouts for the rest of the course.

  17. Wait wait wait wait- a TWENTY PERCENT CONVERSION RATE? Are you seriously saying that 1 in 5 people who received this junkmail bought the product?!? That’s insane. a 0.2% conversion rate would be excellent these days. That HAS to be a typo.

    1. In his book ‘Direct Marketing: Strategy, Planning, Execution,’ LaSalle’s former president of marketing, Robert L. Nash, wrote that their mailed marketing sequence alone converted up to ten percent of the original inquiries. When follow-up by a salesperson was added to the sequence, the conversion ratio increased on average “from 15 to 20 percent” (p. 176).

  18. @#10

    “First, colleges rarely make any money themselves off of the textbook sales, depending on the book distributer they use, the deal they cut, etc.”

    Rarely? Huh, but they sometimes do? I guess they usually break even or simply lose money, then? Who knew that colleges derive the lion’s share of the profit they do make from bookstores by selling bumper stickers and t-shirts!

    How dare anyone suggest that our legitimate and noble institutions of higher learning are motivated by base greed! The tower is made of ivory only because of the munificent and unobtrusive charity of a rich alum who had nothing better to do with it, and how better to further the common wheal than to make agreements that grant to the highest corporate bidder exclusive access to the benefits of research at X university at public expense?

    So, since you belittled Andrea James for not providing “evidence” to support her claims, what evidence do you have to support your claims? I find your claims patently absurd — that is my gut feeling, so if I am to believe them, I need some kind of proof. How would you possibly know of the times when the bookstores occasionally make money?

    The fact is, Universities of pretty much all kinds are, at least in part, in the business of fleecing students as much as possible in just about every conceivable way.

    The textbook scam just happens to be the most prominent scam, kind of on a par, and somewhat related to selling printer ink, (if one calculates by weight) for an amount that has exceeded price of gold.

    I’ve always wondered why there are hundreds of new Algebra texts printed every year. The ones from the 1800s are just as good, if not better than the ones today. Yet, every year new ones a churned out by authors and publishing companies eager to sell their wares.

    There is money to made. Lots and lots of it. Even if one were to concede the point that most textbook writers aren’t getting rich it is still beside the point. That’s like saying that just because the overwhelmingly number of people who play the lottery don’t win, we can conclude that most people must therefore be playing without the intention to get rich.

    1. Pyros, just because you believe a thing does not make it true.

      I do not agree with the tone of melbergeron’s post, but its claims regarding academic book sales are generally true. First, you should know that many university bookstores are privately owned (Follett Higher Education Group, which is a subsidiary of Follett Corporation, operates the store at my university) and universities lease the space at a considerable discount. Under this model, which is the norm and not the exception, universities do not get much in the way of profits from textbook sales.

      Second, you need to differentiate between academic and private textbook publishers. The former almost never make profits on book sales, to the chagrin of the business-minded, no-university-experience trustees who now dominate university campuses. In truth, most academic publishers run a deficit each year and are usually subsidized by the university’s endowment, state or federal governments, or often both. They do not make profits because typically they print academic manuscripts, rather than the textbooks used in introductory classes. Seriously, grab the nearest textbook to you and examine the copyright page; it will likely refer to Pearson Education or McGraw-Hill (or others, depending on your discipline), and not the University of ‘XYXY’ Press. Academic publishers tend to sell around a hundred or less copies of each book, and consequently do not enjoy much in the way of profits, for many reasons: their books concern more narrow subject matter and are less in-demand, the inter-library loan system means fewer libraries (once a guaranteed way to sell a few hundred copies) are purchasing their own copies, many academic publishers aren’t ‘for-profit’ in the first place, etc. I won’t even get into how hard it is to get a manuscript accepted for publication by academic publishers these days…

      Universities are indeed in the business of making money (they also have enormous operating expenses), but the textbook racket isn’t a source of those revenues. You need to direct your attention toward the textbook publishers instead.

  19. Doesn’t “conversion rate on inquiries” mean “how many of those who mailed us for information ended up enrolling”?

    1. @djn: Yes, Nash reported a total conversion rate of 25% with both methods combined following his tweaking. He found that salespeople’s attitudes changed when every single lead got the full direct response sequence. They were much better at converting every lead and less likely to dismiss someone as not worth their time. He also opened up each lead to the full sales force after a set time, which gave a sense of urgency to closing the sale. By any measure, the LaSalle folks were extremely effective direct response marketers.

      1. @Andrea James:
        Right. That makes the 25% number sound quite plausible, too – if people are interested enough to take contact, and get a good response, I’m not surprised that 1/4 actually go for it.

        This is in response to knodi@20 who thought it sounded far too high – I guess he thought it was out of ad viewers, not responders. :)

  20. Academic book prices are high because the print-runs are low; it’s the economics of printing and distributing academic texts that cause the prices to be high.

    Personally I wish that more University presses would follow Ohio State University Press and offer academic books digitally, and for substantially less – to take an example:

    $59.95 cloth 978-0-8142-1043-7
    $9.95 CD 978-0-8142-9123-8

    Unfortunately, they don’t offer all their texts digitally, and a download option would be nice, but maybe google will render that point moot…

  21. I remember the ads from my childhood. LaSalle was considered to be a valid alternative to a four year university. But the fact remains that a person’s innate intelligence will get them further in life than anything else. It’s a shame that a piece of accredited paper makes one’s natural abilities more marketable.

  22. @vettekaas Agree that unclarity or poor phrasing is an issue. And I did not charge the author with intending to be tendentious or malicious or anything else of the sort. All I commented on was what in fact James said (whatever might have been intended) and the take-home message. As you point out, someone makes boatloads of money off of textbook sales. But, again, don’t virtually all readers know that already? What many who come to this site and click on this entry won’t necessarily know is who, exactly, is leaving with all of that cash. This article suggests, if not outright declares, that colleges and their professors are part of this phenomenon. Now, perhaps I was projecting, since I think it’s a bloody awful setup that has students paying hundreds of dollars for texts they’ll likely use once and get very little for on the used market. It strikes me as very scam-like. Perhaps I’m failing to appreciate the genuine costs of the textbook business, though. What is clear, is that neither the college nor the faculty is making money from this.

    So, yeah, not a world-shattering error. But, “Like modern academia, a big part of the revenue involved selling overpriced books authored by instructors […]” is not ambiguous. It claims of the contemporary setup that authors write books, which then are overpriced and help to line college coffers. The revenue at issue is institutional, no? The comparison of LaSalle to modern colleges turns on this. And this is false.

    And so @Felton, my melodrama is not really about this isolated statement in what is actually a fascinating (in my judgment) topic. Rather, my ranting and raving about journalistic standards has more to do with context than with James, per se. I read because I don’t need to be a subject matter expert to follow along and learn things about topics that are often very interesting. I trust this site for the most part. (And still do, melodrama notwithstanding.) But if I hadn’t known that the college makes virtually nothing off of book sales (a fairly obscure bit of knowledge, I should think), then I’d have accepted this as fact along with everything else in the article. Maybe that’s okay. Surely life will not come to a grinding halt should I accept this claim. But, if we can’t–as a general rule–trust journalists and their outlets to fact-check, then not only do we have the burden of being good consumers of arguments, of the judgments/theses that authors advance, but of the basic facts that inform and substantiate those positions. If we turn to journalists to inform us, to make us smarter on some subject or other, but can’t be justly confident that however distant their judgments might be from one’s own, facts are facts, then why bother turning to them at all? At the very least, we should be able to leave an article with some new facts to consider. I might reject her conclusions altogether (I don’t) and still leave with some intriguing, serviceable, curious, whatever facts under my belt. Provided I have reason to think that she got her facts right. Without that basic, professional assurance, journalism is just noise.

    1. Fair enough, Mel. Sorry if any offense was taken from my comment. In retrospect, it was a pretty snide thing to say.

      1. No offense taken, but thanks for your follow-up.

        (Another thing I quite like–especially like, even–about boingboing is the general tone in the comments area. I was more than a little bummed that my comment screwed up the feng shui of this thread for some. I should cut my caffeine intake, maybe.)

        1. I absolutely agree – about the tone of discourse on boingboing, not about the caffeine.;-) This is one of the few places on the internet where you can actually find civil discourse. I’m not sure if it’s because the writers and their topics attract a friendlier-than-average crowd or because the moderators are trained as both diplomats and ninjas.

    2. “Now, perhaps I was projecting, since I think it’s a bloody awful setup that has students paying hundreds of dollars for texts they’ll likely use once and get very little for on the used market. It strikes me as very scam-like.”

      It sure is. Certainly something we can agree on. I’m thankful that some profs send students lists of texts before the semester starts, or put copies of the texts on reserve at the library. (Very few of my profs even bother ordering books to be available at the bookstore anymore). Do you have any other suggestions on how to subvert this system?

  23. Conversely, the design school (meatspace classes) that I attended had all the requirements of a regular four-year college but didn’t offer a degree, just a certificate. Their rationale was that most of the students already had degrees and it wouldn’t be meaningful to them.

  24. The first successful correspondence school in the U.S. was the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle, founded in 1878 as a continuation of the summer educational and religious camp in upstate New York. The CLSC actually inspired Raney’s University of Chicago program.

    1. Upstate my ass. That’s WESTERN New York. There’s no better way to piss someone from that region off than to call everything north of NYC upstate.

  25. @Pyros My sincerest apologies–to you and to James–if anything I said struck you as belittling. It was not my intention. It is precisely because James is a solid writer that this sort of claim is likely to go unnoticed except by those who have antecedent knowledge. But, lots of people without prior knowledge of how academia works (particularly as a business, which I grant, without hesitation, it is) will find this piece interesting–or at least it seems that way to me. So, the potential for misinformation is considerable. And, it has been my observation that people who are consumers of information also traffic in it.

    As far as the implied superiority of the ivory tower, I guess I owe you another apology; had no idea my words conveyed that. To be clear: I do not think that academics are superior to other professions. But neither do I think academics morally inferior. And, the idea that a prof (or his college) is intending to fleece his students strikes me as a betrayal, exploitive. But perhaps that’s just me.

    My evidence? Well, actually, I don’t need to have any evidence to demand it from the one who made the initial assertion. (Neither do I have positive evidence that Santa doesn’t exist, but I’m still entitled to demand evidence from one who asserts he does.) But, yeah, college bookstores sometimes have difficulty breaking even, depending on the sort of institution, what they sell, funding streams, and so forth. My information is a mash-up of what my own bookstore tells me about going into the red on some books (new, cloth, non-intro, apparently being the worst in this regard), what the book distributer tells me, and what the publishers trying to get me to adopt one of their texts tell me. All sources converge on the fact of college bookstores having virtually no say over price points for academic texts. (And I wonder if you’ve not failed to appreciate the markup on “office supplies.” The only example I can think of off of the top of my head is the manager’s claim that the sale price of highlighters is 400% his cost.)

    @stephenbuhner Request for clarification: Are you claiming that Harvard University is not accredited? Or are you commenting on some other sort of licensing? If the former, you’re mistaken. They are accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (, and have been for very many years. While I’m inclined to agree that there are perfectly legitimate forms of distance learning (that certainly should not be lumped with diploma mills), it does seem that quality assurance–already challenging enough in the brick-and-mortar versions–is particularly difficult without some sort of accreditation.

    1. @melbergeron: I’m used to self-righteous histrionics from thin-skinned academics, so no need to apologize. Some of you just can’t help it. Its endemic in your industry.

      I just added a new post on US academic textbook marketing politics and your role in the current mess:

      I was hoping this thread would be full of amazing comments from LaSalle grads and their relatives, like dogugotw#13 or Skip#55. Let’s continue the textbook sidebar there.

      Thanks to lubar#45 and strangefriend#54 for mentioning those other excellent programs! I should have clarified degree-confirming. Correspondence school either gave out certificates or degrees; I meant to say I was focusing on school offering degrees.

      I believe we are heading into a new age of self-directed distance learning. Very exciting times!

  26. The average cost of a college textbook in Hong Kong, at least from those that I have seen, is about $300+ HKD, which converts to about $30-$40 USD.

    And $130 USD is about a month’s wages for the relatively less poor in China. Frankly, this is appalling.

  27. To get back to the main topic and away from the textbook selling sideline… An even better story is the the International Correspondence Schools of Scranton, Pennsylvania. Founded in 1891 for miners, it had 100,000 students a year early in the new century, and lasted through most of the 20th century. Its motto: to provide “practical men with a technical education, and technical men with a practical education.”

    And by the way, it produced wonderful textbooks on a wide range of topics. A great way to read up on dead technologies.

    Information from

  28. Down with Harvard! Down with Yale!
    We get our learning through the mail!

    Many points spring to mind:

    1 – Didn’t Miskatonic have a great home study program too? I know that there were at least some Dummies books:

    2 – The other way university textbooks end up being way too expensive is that a new standard text gets introduced every single semester to cut down on the used textbook market. Especially for things that never change like freshmen physics or Euclidean geometry. This also has the annoying side-effect that all kinds of things, like the answers in the back, are always wrong since no one ever has time to fix them before the book is superseded. When I was in University we had errata that were sometimes bigger than the books. I used to go to Victorian standards like Hall & Knight or translations of Soviet texts as all the stuff in them was pitched at the lowliest subject of the Empire and all the answers in the back were always right.

    3 – In South Africa the giant home study school was the only way for most people in the apartheid era to get a degree. Which made it the source of endless fascination to the secret police back then.

    1. >1 – Didn’t Miskatonic have a great home study program too? I know that there were at least some Dummies books:

      I took that home study program. But without the scholarly guidance of top faculty on this particular subject matter, I NEVER WENT INSANE.

      Some day in the near future, Cthulhu will rise from the waves, and I’ll just be standing there, looking on blankly, saying something like, “I don’t get it.”

      I am SOOOOO not prepared.

      I want my money back.

  29. PS: more please on diff/distinction between schooling vs. education

    I would posit that an education might enable you to write better.

    Why do people get so upset with the price of textbooks? You don’t have to buy them. Libraries have them. Second hand copies are widely available from the previous year’s student and you will usually notice that they have never even cracked the covers. I think I bought perhaps 5 textbooks total during my years at university whilst getting several degrees.

    It is certainly a field where e-books may have a dramatic impact. Suddenly the production costs are reduced to the front-end costs of editing and layout – not often something that a lot of money is spent on – and then it’s server space and bandwidth. And if the purpose of the book is truly to help students with their education then no one should object to them being freely copied around.

  30. I got a degree through the mail in order to get the piece of paper I needed to get into law school. I bought Dr. John Bear’s guide to alternative degree programs, found 5 schools that would work for me, picked the cheapest and closest one, western illinois u. (western’ll annoy you.)
    Took me a year, $1000, I got a 4.0. I’d already been to college but not graduated. It’s the law degree from a real school that serves as my credentials,although I’ve never gotten a job as a lawyer. I also have a $3,000 hat from a trucking school; the hat was about all I got out of it.
    I question the market value of the U of Phoenix degree. I recommend Dr. Bear’s book to anyone into that kind of thing. Also his book on “Effective Complaining.” It might be fun to make an actual diploma mill – a laser printer with a big crank and some steampunk props?
    I remember the lasalle and ICS ads from old sf magazines that I used to buy for a dime from mile high comics.
    Maybe I should get around to making a cafe press tshirt site for some of the actual diploma mills. Holy Toledo University was one of my favorites.

  31. This article brings back memories on how I got my degree thru Regents College of the University of New York at Albany. I used my transcript from my stint at UT in Austin during the 70s & courses from universities all over the country to get a degree in liberal arts. It gave me the confidence to be able to say at my job, “Do you want fries with that?” Heh.
    Regents College went on to become Excelsior College.

  32. A whole lot of years ago I took the GED exam while in the service. When the results came back my LT said that my scores indicated that I was probably college material. I signed us for a LaSalle course. I now have a P.hD. and working on my second Masters. If it were not for the kind words of a 2nd LT who didn’t make it home and LaSalle my life would have been markedly different.


  33. Looks like that grinning ninny from the penis pill commercials. I wonder if the subtext of Extension University is “grow some more dick.”

  34. At my daughter’s private Junior High school, her textbooks run probably $700 / year. These are standard books, used in classes across the nation, that you can pick up for 90% less if you buy them used on Amazon.

    That’s apples to oranges as it relates to college textbooks, I know, but it illustrates the underlying principle behind all of this: greed.

    Prices are not determined by production costs; prices are determined by the market. If a publisher can sell a textbook for $1000 and pay the author $1, it’s their duty to their stockholders to do it.

    I have no doubt we’ll see prices in that range at some point, unless e-books or rentals can accomplish a little creative destruction.

    Academics complaining that they don’t make any money are like preachers complaining they work too many hours. Cry me a river and come play in the dog-eat-dog real world.

  35. My my, those testy academics with their uber defense to try to hide the man behind the curtain. Trust those “hard working” 24/7 (24 hours a week, 7 months a year) defend their lackadaisical career (the ‘I put in all this time to get a piece of paper, now you TOO need to suffer like me’) and try to go to great lengths, even quasi-academia sounding yet phony empty kinda banal rhetoric (melbergeron, testy much?).

    Melbergeron and those other kneejerk defending their right to their antiquated often outmoded systems reek of the saying “how you react says more about you, than it does about the situation or event.” How one reacts says more about them. Think about that, then read their whiney diatribes. Interesting.

    Considering I work for a rather large university in New York, and can attest to the fact that the branch that handles the book store and it’s sales head of the department makes more than the actual college President, and that most the upper staff of the bookstore and those auxiliary services drive much nicer rides than some of our deans, yes, college book stores are a total racket.

    I’m not a professor mind you, my career doesn’t get protected by a tenure system so byzantine and outdated it makes the whole Catholics moving Priests who rape around look like solid justice, no, only staff, but one with access and knowledge of the org charts and, despite the secrecy on the department who’s operations are the book sales, can attest, the rake in a considerable sum, more interesting for my university, including meal plans and housing, they keep their money, the college more or less doesn’t get to use it, and they’re making themselves filthy rich off the process.

    I doubt most professors at my college would take the hysterics and umbrage shown here in the comments though some might, even those who know they don’t see the profits of the division that mans the books sales. That said, they’ll all lock-step together when push comes to shove to keep the slowly outmoded, outdated, conservative, and broken system of higher education grinding along. After all, even an accredited university is very much like a diploma mill, only they have a larger lobby and more at stake so fight harder to not appear like the vacuous, empty machine that they are.

    Living life = the true education, university = just hoops put in place because someone before you put them there to make it seems like you’re doing something that will usually mean nothing once you shake that hand and grab that mostly worthless* diploma.

    *The institution on the diploma isn’t worthless, however in a world of not what, but who you know, you’re better off saying you worked with X than you got some piece of paper from Y, and most colleges prepare students about as well for the real world as the game Operation prepares a person for doing surgery.

    1. It’s obvious enough you’re not a professor; you seem to have a poor understanding of the academic industry from the teaching side of things. A majority of academics in the United States are untenured adjunct/sessional faculty. Many end up teaching 4/4, 5/5, or even 6/6 loads. Multiply the number of graded assignments and exams by the class sizes, include prep time, and maybe then you’ll get a sense of the hours involved. Add the time involved in the research/conference/publication side of the job. Now include the administrative duties, e.g. the number of hours each week attending meetings for committee X and Y.

      Got that number?

      Compare it with the average salary of a professor, factoring in the cost of education and late starting date re: retirement savings, professional advancement, etc.

      You say you’re not a professor? No shit. The people who are, more often than not, do it because they like it, not because of a posh working schedule that doesn’t actually exist.

      – – –

      I apologize for the digression.

  36. A great spin of this idea is happening now, and with due cause. The Uop, ( or University of the people is a non profit venture backed up by The UN, many governments in Africa and middle east and many do-gooders.

    I think the first semester has just ended and brought the Internet, and higher education to few hundred students in Africa and middle east.

    Did I mention there is almost no tuition and the student pays only for the tests? I think this is a great idea.

    BTW, I just follow these guys, got no affiliation with them, unfortunately…

  37. U. of Phoenix has one thing that LaSalle didn’t – a football team. The Arizona Cardinals aren’t an NCAA-sanctioned entity, but they play like one.

  38. I took the Stenotypy course from LaSalle Extension University, and have never regreted it. They took a semi-literate high school graduate and made him into a person who could eventually complete five BA’s and a MA degree in a residential university. Both my parents were depression people who dropped out of school in the seventh grade so they did not know what I was doing academically after I left the fifth grade. Since then I have taken courses with NRI, CSI, MEEAD, Ambassador College 58 lessons Bible course, plus others. They were all top quality courses and deserve credit as being so. I’m sorry to see their demise. However, I have done two on-line courses that various religious organization offer in Sanskrit and Assyrian, and have found them to be of fine quality even though they were free courses. So employers who talk down such courses are simply too lazy to consider people who are willing to work at a course because they want the knowledge. No, people who study at home do not party at a frat house and so don’t make connections with braggarts and time wasters. But then again, Walter P. Chrysler didn’t do those things either while studying with CSI. I’m not sure what the Federal Government is up to when they crackdown on non-accredited schools. But seeing what has come out of the Ivy League schools has not impressed me as material to make a country healthy and wealthy. Let’s not forget that Charles Dickens was totally self-taught, and I challenge anyone to show me a modern novelist who can come close to the quality of his novels.

  39. I was looking for information about La Salle Correspondence School to corroborate information I’m collecting on a biography of my father. These are the facts that I was hoping to check up on:

    He had enrolled in a bookkeeping class in the late 1920s, during the depression. His post- WWI occupation was as a farmer, but by picking up an odd job here and there hauling things with his truck, his focus changed and he became the owner of a trucking company. He needed to understand bookkeeping for this growing business; that’s why he signed up. – He was not after a diploma.

    In the 1960s his business had burgeoned and he wanted to understand accounting better – how to apply bookkeeping data to making long range forecasting and other business decisions. He checked back in with La Salle about re-enrolling, and was surprised to learn that his original enrollment was still good; all he needed to do was sign up for the class he wanted – at no additional fees!

    Both his bookkeeping and his accounting classes were pursued while he was working full time building his business. He would not have had an extra minute to attend night school classes at brick and mortar schools. He needed not only the knowledge to be obtained from reading a text book, but also the feed back from the instructors after he mailed in his homework.

    He felt that he learned much from both classes that were of immeasurable help in his business. My mother had a fit when he spent money they didn’t have to enroll, but she later realized that the business never would have grown without the knowledge gained from that correspondence school.

    I was disappointed to learn that I was too late in researching out this part of my father’s life and that the school is now defunct. I was hoping to find out what he may have paid for that initial enrollment back in 1920s or 1930s. I was hoping to find out if they had any actual class records of my father’s progress.

    The topic of cost of text books was brought up by one paragraph in the original article. It is somewhat interesting, but I was disappointed in only finding one response that referred to someone who attended the school or who had any comments about the quality of its instruction. And only a few comments on the usefulness of correspondence schools in general.

    About the article itself,I was surprised to find Adlai Stevenson on the board of directors, and teaching a course there.

    Phyllis K

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