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Within the past week, two well-known and well-established coding bootcamps have announced they’ll be closing their doors: Dev Bootcamp, owned by Kaplan Inc., and The Iron Yard, owned by the Apollo Education Group (parent company of the University of Phoenix). Two closures might not make a trend… yet. But some industry observers have suggested we might see more “consolidation” in the coming months.

It appears that there are simply more coding bootcamps – almost 100 across the US and Canada – than there are students looking to learn to code. (That is to say, there are more coding bootcamps than there are people looking to pay, on average, $11,000 for 12 weeks of intensive training in a programming language or framework).

All this runs counter, of course, to the pervasive belief in a “skills gap” – that there aren’t enough qualified programmers to fill all the programming jobs out there, and that as such, folks looking for work should jump at the chance to pay for tuition at a bootcamp. Code.org and other industry groups have suggested that there are currently some 500,000 unfilled computing jobs, for example. But that number is more invention than reality, a statistic used to further a particular narrative about the failure of schools to offer adequate technical training. That 500,000 figure, incidentally, comes from a Bureau of Labor Statistics projection about the number of computing and IT jobs that will added to the US economy by 2024, not the number of jobs that are available – filled or unfilled – today.

Perhaps instead of “everyone should learn to code,” we should push for everyone to learn how to read the BLS jobs report.

There isn’t really much evidence of a “skills gap” – there’s been no substantive growth in wages, for example, that one would expect if there was a shortage in the supply of qualified workers. And while we can talk about jobs that will be added to the overall economy in the coming years, it’s important to remember that the job market isn’t national; it’s local. A Haskell programmer in Silicon Valley might earn $150,000 a year, for example; a Haskell programmer in Des Moines probably won’t. Hell, there might not be any Haskell jobs in all of Iowa.

For its part, Dev Bootcamp had coding bootcamps in Austin, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and Seattle. The Iron Yard had coding bootcamps in Atlanta, Austin, Charleston, Dallas, Durham, Greenville, Houston, Indianapolis, Las Vegas, Nashville, Orlando, Raleigh, Tampa Bay, and Washington DC. (An Iron Yard location in Detroit had already closed its doors.) In all these locations, the bootcamps boasted that they were working with high profile local employers. But the question remains: did local employers really want or need bootcamp grads? Or rather, there are (at least) two questions: were there a sufficient number of tech jobs in these cities to make the bootcamp tuition and time spent worthwhile; and was the training at a bootcamp sufficient to get hired?

In December of last year, Bloomberg published a warning to prospective students: “Want a Job in Silicon Valley? Keep Away From Coding Schools.” The article contended that many companies have found coding bootcamp grads unprepared for technical work: “These tech bootcamps are a freaking joke,” one tech recruiter told the publication. “My clients are looking for a solid CS degree from a reputable university or relevant work experience.” Google’s director of education echoed this sentiment: “Our experience has found that most graduates from these programs are not quite prepared for software engineering roles at Google without additional training or previous programming roles in the industry.”

Of course, with all these regional schools, the bootcamps aren’t really training employees for work in the Bay Area (although I think that is part of their marketing – get a certificate, and you can land a job with a famous tech company). And despite the poor reputation bootcamps might have among some tech firms, Course Report, a review site for bootcamps, touts these schools’ successful job placement rates. Course Report claims that among those graduates it surveyed, 73% had found full-time employment using the skills they’d learned, and those had seen an average salary increase of $26,000. No doubt, it’s worth pointing out that there is very little independent research to validate these sorts of claims – much of the research is industry-sponsored, and much of the data, self-reported.

Also worth noting: that of those surveyed by Course Report, 60% already had bachelor’s degrees. Arguably, this makes the bootcamp certification more of an addition to the college degree than a substitute for one. And this complicates any discussion of credentialing and hiring – does someone land a programming job because she or he has a college degree or because she or he has a coding bootcamp certificate? How might gender and race play into this?

How might the school itself play into this? I don’t just mean coding bootcamps in general, but specific bootcamp brands. Brands like Dev Bootcamp and The Iron Yard, obviously, have taken a hit to their “legitimacy” by closing (and their students will feel this in turn) – I’m borrowing this term from sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom – but arguably these schools were also associated with what McMillan Cottom calls “lower ed” in the first place. That is, they’d become subsidiaries of the for-profit colleges Kaplan and the University of Phoenix respectively – coding bootcamps as “the new for-profit higher ed.” Does that association matter to bootcamp students, and just as importantly, does that association matter to employers? Again, there's not much research.

For-profit higher ed has been in the news a lot in the last couple of years, and the news hasn’t been so good: stories about the high rate of student loan debt, charges of fraudulent marketing, and the closures of chains like Corinthian Colleges and ITT (a technical college, to boot). According to one study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the average student at a for-profit college is actually worse off after attending. That is, these students are less likely to be employed; and if they do have jobs, they are more likely to earn less.

But of course the “average student” at a for-profit college is not the same as the “average student” at a coding bootcamp. As McMillan Cottom documents in her book Lower Ed, “the typical for-profit college student is a woman and a parent. For-profit colleges dominate in producing black bachelor’s degree holders.” According to the latest survey (again, survey) from Course Report, 55% of bootcamp students are male; 70% are white. 39% paid for their bootcamp tuition themselves; and 17% took out loans. 96% of those enrolled for-profit colleges, by comparison, take out loans.

Much of the latter is federal loan money. Bootcamps, on the other hand, are not eligible for federal financial aid. The Obama Administration did launch a pilot program – the Educational Quality through Innovative Partnerships (EQUIP) initiative – to evaluate the possibility of “non-traditional providers” like bootcamps becoming aid-eligible. But there’s been no word from the Trump Administration if this will be continued or expanded. (Among those bootcamps participating: The Flatiron School in partnership with SUNY Empire State College, MakerSquare in partnership with the University of Texas Austin, HackerRank in partnership with Wilmington University, and Epicodus in partnership with Marylhurst University.) Perhaps bootcamps (and their investors) were hoping that federal financial aid would subsidize their operations like it has done the rest of for-profit higher ed; but that money hasn’t materialized.

Nevertheless, coding bootcamps – and “learn-to-code” startups more generally – remain one of the most active areas for ed-tech investment. Over $70 million in venture capital has been funneled in coding bootcamps so far in 2017. But unlike in the recent past, there have yet to be any big acquisitions in the industry this year. In 2016, Capella Education, another for-profit college chain, acquired the bootcamps Hackbright Academy and Dev Mountain; and fellow for-profit Strayer Education acquired the New York Code and Design Academy. (Other 2016 bootcamp buys: General Assembly acquired Bitmaker, Bloc acquired DevBridge, and Full Stack Academy acquired Starter League.) There’s been some criticism of those bootcamp founders who sold their companies to for-profits and subsequently “checked out,” allowing the quality of their offerings to suffer. But that’s likely what happens if your company raises venture capital: a bigger company buys you (and crushes you).

When Dev Bootcamp announced it was closing, the company admitted that it had been “unable to find a sustainable model” that didn't compromise its vision for “high-quality, immersive coding training that is broadly accessible to a diverse population.” Indeed, despite the tech industry’s disdain for the education system and particularly for the politics of its (unionized) labor force, “high-quality, immersive coding training” is going to be an expensive, labor-intensive proposition. For its part, the for-profit higher education industry has not been known to invest heavily in instruction (faculty or curriculum); its dollars – primarily federal financial aid dollars at that – have gone instead to marketing and recruitment.

So it may just be that the business of teaching everyone to code (and to code well and to do so without federal money) isn’t a very good business at all, particularly at the sort of scale that for-profit higher ed chains – career colleges and coding bootcamps alike – and their investors have sought.

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Audrey Watters


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