Milton Hershey School

  • Education
  • 1909

Chocolatier Milton Hershey didn’t invent the candy bar, but he was the first to transform it from expensive delicacy to treat affordable by all, and in the process he became very wealthy. He and his sickly wife, Kitty, were unable to have children, so they decided to give their sweet fortune to orphans and other needy boys living in hardscrabble—something Milton understood well, after a peripatetic childhood and education that ended at fourth grade, due to a drinking father who left his family for long periods of time. In 1909, Hershey signed over to his new Hershey Industrial School a fully operating 486-acre farm that included the homestead where he had been born. In 1918 he went much further, placing all of his shares in the Hershey Chocolate Company in a trust whose sole purpose was to benefit the school. He kept the transfer secret until it was revealed in a 1923 interview with the New York Times, when he explained that “I have no heirs, so I have decided to make the orphan boys of the United States my heirs.” To this day, the school retains controlling interest in the Fortune 500 Hershey Company, the Hersheypark entertainment complex, and other businesses.

Right up until Milton Hershey’s death in 1945 (at which point his only assets were his home and its furnishings, having given away everything else while he was still alive) he remained intimately involved in the running of the school. He made sure his boys (and now girls too) received very practical upbringings, “a thorough common-school education, supplemented by instruction in the useful crafts.” He had three goals for every graduate: a vocation, a love of God and man, and a sense of wholesome responsibility. “We do not intend to turn out a race of professors,” he noted. Students had to build their own beds and chests in the school carpentry shop, and keep up with a host of chores, including twice-daily milking of the school’s cows. The milking requirement for students continued until 1989, as the curriculum gradually shifted toward college preparation. Highly structured chores requirements remain, as does mandatory chapel time on Sunday. And to this day, active work in the school’s agricultural, animal, and environmental centers (for example, a fish hatchery operated on the trout stream running through campus) are an important part of its efforts to promote initiative and responsibility.

Beyond this emphasis on individual commitment, discipline, and work, Hershey became known for creating a warm, personal, and nurturing environment. Students live in groups of 10 to 12, two or three to a bedroom, in more than a hundred closely clustered houses overseen by a married couple with childrearing experience. A transitional living program places seniors in quasi-independent apartments, where they get help in buying and preparing their own food, setting their schedules, and running their own lives in preparation for college or self-support after graduation.

Most students arrive at Hershey with difficult histories. Half come from families with drug or alcohol problems, 39 percent have experienced domestic violence, a fifth have been homeless, a third have an incarcerated family member, 43 percent have mental-health issues in their family, and close to half of all students get psychological treatment in a given school year. Thanks to its deep donated resources, the school is able to counteract these burdens with intensive help. It keeps 43 mental-health professionals on staff, 38 medical professionals, and seven full-time social workers. In addition to intensive counseling, that includes extensive character training, and practical help like orthodontia, speech therapy, and so forth.

As a result, Hershey’s retention rates are comparable to boarding schools serving middle-class children—nine out of ten students complete an average school year. One-hundred percent of recent graduating seniors have earned at least one industrial certification by the time they finish school. And more than three quarters go on to four-year college, while close to 10 percent enter the work force or military, with the remainder attending a technical or two-year college.

The endowment that Milton Hershey left his school is now worth $12 billion—more than what all but a few universities enjoy. That allows the charity to operate the largest boarding school in America, with 2,000 pre-K to twelfth-grade students. And it offers superb services—education, emotional support, medical care, all food, housing, and clothing, and follow-up aid like college scholarships and lifelong alumni support—completely free of charge to all children.

Unfortunately, the school’s large trust (and its ownership of the Hershey Company that is a major economic force in Pennsylvania) have attracted political intrusion. A succession of state attorneys general and governors used their oversight of the charitable sector to stack the school board with political cronies and former staffers, then pressed the trust to use its assets to boost the regional economy. This started in 1963, 18 years after Milton Hershey’s death, when $50 million of orphanage money and more than 500 acres of land were redirected by the state attorney general and the board into building a Penn State medical school on part of the old Hershey farm.

Money and land continued to be siphoned into other economic schemes, including an insolvent golf course. Board members were pressured not to sell Hershey Company shares even when that would have been in the clear interest of protecting the school by diversifying its investments. And politicians running for office over the years developed a habit of loudly promising to “make sure the Hershey trust money is used to benefit Pennsylvanians”—rather than serving more of the abandoned children who the donor wanted to be the focus. So the school stagnated at its current size even though it could have been expanded greatly. Its latest financial filings show the board now spends only 1.9 percent of Hershey assets on educational programs.

Politically connected board members also became embroiled in a series of scandals in recent years. These showed a pattern of weak supervision, excessive board compensation, resistance to board turnover, and exaggerated focus on side projects like the Hershey resort, state medical school, and golf course, rather than Milton Hershey’s beloved orphans.