The rise of the National Association of Accredited Commercial Schools and the development of ethical standards

From part one: The roots of career education have taken hold in the United States, and career education is flourishing across the nation. From the first recorded school to teach vocational subjects — founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1749 — to Foster’s Commercial School of Boston in 1832, the first established school specializing in training for commerce, students around the country were seeing the value of career-specific learning.

By the mid-1850s, about 20 private career schools were teaching business-related subjects in the states. Most of these were located in the major trading centers along the Atlantic coast, such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Charleston. With the invention of the steamboat, western cities, such as St. Louis and New Orleans, became important trading centers, and schools were established in those cities, too.

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. 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 to meet with him at the Hotel La Salle. During 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.

After 1914, NAACS membership increased rapidly under the aggressive leadership of W. N. Watson, chairman of the membership committee. In those days, an applicant was admitted to membership by the board of governors after the school’s proprietor had filed a lengthy application. This application had to be supported by recommendations furnished by the other private career school owners, local bankers and pubic school officials.

In addition to the membership committee, several other committees were formed within the framework of the association. One of the most important was the educational committee. W. B. Elliott, proprietor of the Elliott Commercial School of Wheeling, West Virginia, was the head of the educational committee during the 1920s and 1930s. Under Elliott’s leadership, model programs in shorthand, typewriting and bookkeeping were developed. The Educational Committee also served as liaison with the North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools and the United States Bureau of Education. (The North Central Association is the agency that grants accreditation to universities and secondary schools in the North Central states.)

The vigilance committee was another important committee established during the early years. This committee closely resembled a modern accreditation group since it was responsible for ensuring that the membership complied with the code of ethics regarding business practices and educational policies. The committee dealt with complaints and visited member schools from time to time. Several years after the formation of the vigilance committee, its name was changed to the Better Business Bureau (which should not to be confused with the council that bears that name today).

After almost five years, the Association decided to legally incorporate. It seems that the founding fathers may have been reluctant to take that step until they were confident the infant union would survive. Acting on behalf of the membership, the board of governors incorporated the NAACS on May 25, 1917, in the District of Columbia.

The membership’s entrepreneurial spirit surfaced with the establishment of the Accredited Schools Supply Company in 1917. Set up as a cooperative, this spin-off company’s job was to furnish supplies and publish textbooks for the member schools. Members of the cooperative were able to purchase shares of stock in the new company.


A code of ethical practices

The benefits of NAACS membership for commercial schools struggling to survive and thrive in a highly competitive environment were strong inducements to join the organization in the early days. An important benefit was affiliation with a group that emphasized its members’ adherence to a strict code of ethical practices in both educational management and the delivery of instructional services. By the year 1920, all members were required to subscribe to a code of ethics and educational policies that included directives to

  • Employ, at all times, an adequate number of good teachers and maintain suitable quarters and equipment for the programs and community to be served
  • Pay legitimate debts promptly and in a businesslike manner
  • Deal honorably in all student-relation matters
  • Avoid exaggeration of every kind and form in advertising
  • Make no misleading statements or misrepresentations of any kind, either in person or through any agency
  • Cultivate within the school itself, and in its community, the highest possible moral standards
  • Refuse, either directly or indirectly, to guarantee positions to prospective students, and refrain from making statements regarding prospective employment that were not fully corroborated by the school’s experience
  • Report promptly to the proper officer of the association any violation of the ethics of the profession
  • Submit disagreements among members to a board of arbitrators

In addition, the code of ethics demanded that “Each member of this association shall be one whose character and reputation are above reproach, and who shall so order his general conduct as to entitle him to be regarded as a suitable person to direct the education and moral development of the young people of his institution.” The ethical code of practice that served as a foundation for early private career schools still remains an important part of the career college sector of higher education today.

Government relations

From its inception, the NAACS concerned itself with establishing a good relationship with the federal government. In 1916, members of the NAACS met with Dr. Glen Levin Swiggert, specialist in commercial education of the United States Bureau of Education, to establish an understanding about the roles of private and public school education and emphasize that quality educational service was the association’s main concern. During this same time, NAACS also strengthened its relationship with the federal government by offering the United States Civil Service Commission the facilities of member schools throughout the country for administering civil service examinations.

After World War I ended, thousands of disabled soldiers returned from the conflict, unfit for the type of employment to which they had been accustomed. The United States government decided to give these veterans the opportunity to return to the workforce by facilitating retraining within the range of their physical limitations. Many of these veterans chose to be trained for office work or other business-related activity. Although actual figures are unavailable, it is known that many World War I veterans received their training in NAACS member schools as part of this joint rehabilitation effort.

Look for more installments of the Heritage series in future editions of Career College Central.

Apply for scholarships using our mobile app!

IAF app delivers tools & resources perfect for students of all ages, high school counselors, career college and university college admins. Matching your school with scholarships opportunities, applying and checking application status has never been easier.