Government is moving faster than startups.
That may be the first time anyone’s written those words, but it’s exactly what’s happening in the nascent coding bootcamp market.
The Department of Education recently announced EQUIP, a new pilot program allowing federal student loans to be accessible to students attending coding bootcamps. The acronym may scream of old-school bureaucracy, but it’s the start of a big change for students and bootcamps alike. Previously, schools needed expensive and slow auditing to be allowed to accept students that use government-backed loans.
This friction is a large part of what keeps schools from creating their own bootcamps, which thrive on constantly changing curricula and new approaches to education. EQUIP acknowledges the positive impact bootcamps are having, and is a huge stride in the marathon to disrupt higher education.
Four-year colleges and universities are getting a bad rap. Tuition has risen at double the rate of inflation for a generation, and student-debt loads have grown in lock step. This is forcing new grads to find a quick job instead of maximizing their long-term success.
Combined with the 2008 crisis and the tech boom, a perfect opportunity arose for a new form of vocational education to bring adults out of zero- or negative-growth sectors into the high-growth tech sector.
This year about 70 bootcamps will graduate 16,000 students, growing from zero just three years ago. The schools range from General Assembly — which claims 60 percent of the offline market — to single location schools like Fullstack Academy and Thinkful, the largest online program.
Unaccredited, 3-10x faster and far less expensive than college, these programs promise (and mostly deliver) stable, junior programming jobs. It’s a compelling pitch for someone who’s a hundred thousand dollars in debt.
As they’ve matured, bootcamps have happily co-opted the language of traditional schools. There’s admissions, graduation, alumni services, career counsellors and job fairs. But when it comes to a standard definition for graduation — the role degrees traditionally fill — bootcamps stumble, claiming job placement is the only meaningful metric.
This remains bootcamps’ Achilles’ heel; as some programs have grown, we’ve seen a dark side emerge by avoiding standard definitions.
The Department of Education is actually helping bootcamps in their mission to change higher education.
One of the most well-respected offline bootcamps recently launched a new online-only program that comes with a job “guarantee.” It’s compelling until you read the details (written in grey text on a grey background like all those terms of service you agree to). For $1,000 per month students are asked to learn almost entirely on their own, with virtually zero support as would be standard with any bootcamp.
They also demand adherence to no less than 19 different criteria students must follow for 3-10 months to qualify for the guarantee, including responses to emails within 48 hours, near constant writing of code and that they “be available, if invited, to interview for a minimum of three interviews per week.”
A weekend cold and your “guarantee” is null and void. Perhaps most dangerous, the school touts achievements of students from its offline program as relevant for this unproven online one, blurring their distinction even though the two are completely separate.
Another bootcamp with hundreds of graduates touts one achievement of one graduate (he got into the prestigious Y Combinator program), blurring the difference between an average experience and an extraordinary one. A third bootcamp is infamous for expelling struggling students so the program’s job placement rates appear extraordinarily high.
Bootcamp overreach even caught the attention of prominent programmer and writer Zed Shaw, after he heard repeated reports of abuse of students by overly aggressive bootcamps.
Bootcamps also have made a variety of half-attempts to recreate degrees independently from scratch. With names like The GA Credentialing Network and NESTA, each of these gets a press release, a few quotes, then silence. Today, each school defines its own graduation criteria, publishes its own statistics and controls what’s publicly known about them.
Third-party services like Switchup are trying to create a standard, but are stymied by the lack of transparency and a business model that relies on ads from the bootcamps themselves. This is one place where government setting standards — even if only voluntarily adhered to by bootcamps — would benefit everyone, most of all students.
People running bootcamps have noble intentions, but simply don’t realize how much students entrust their futures (and their savings) to them. Vague claims and oversized promises will backfire as the industry grows, as each overreach makes government regulation more warranted. This isn’t only a hypothesis: It’s exactly what turned the world against earlier generations of for-profit education a decade ago.
When it comes to a standard definition for graduation, bootcamps stumble, claiming job placement is the only meaningful metric.
It’s why I’m so excited about this news: The Department of Education is actually helping bootcamps in their mission to change higher education — saving them from a few bad actions before it’s too late.
In addition to EQUIP, General Assembly announced a partnership with Lynn University, where students can take courses for credit. The courses will be validated and audited by Lynn University, but will not require programs to adhere to the traditional accreditation process that slows innovation.
It’s the start of a whole new source of funding for bootcamp education: The multi-billion dollar government-backed student loan and grant system. As long as bootcamps don’t abuse it, and auditing can keep quality high, it will amount to a huge win for students.
It will also throw some bootcamps into a tizzy, with screams of innovation being stifled by regulation. Those who make such claims don’t understand the trust students place in their educators.
I’m not exactly looking forward to an expensive audit of our curriculum, or a certification process for our 300 professional software engineering mentors. But I am looking forward to hundreds of thousands of new students being able to afford our program. I’m also the first to acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, some of the university system developed over centuries has value that should be maintained.
In five years, bootcamps will have even more completely adopted the language and branding of traditional schools, while many accredited colleges and government regulators will expand the market for bootcamps by offering to their students access to college credit.
It’s complex and not guaranteed, but together we can lower the cost of college for everyone while increasing education’s utility in an ever-changing job market. Disruption achieved.