United States: Computing boot-camp: Risks and rewards
Should for-profit crash courses get federal funds?
Liberal arts degrees and computer savvy rarely sit comfortably together.But computer-programming is increasingly where the jobs are.This logic guided Adam Enbar and Avi Flombaum in 2012 to found Flatiron, one of many coding boot-camps sprinkled across America.The camps offer intensive courses in web development, usually lasting three to six months.They aim to prepare students for software-engineering jobs, while offering career advice and the chance to network: in short, vocational school for the information age.They have emerged to fill a pressing demand for coders.
Software-engineering jobs will grow at a rate of 18.8% by 2024, nearly triple the rate of overall job growth, according to the bureau of Labor Statistics.So boot-camps are multiplying.In 2015 more than 16,000 students graduated from them, a 138% increase from the year before, according to Course Report, an organization that tracks the industry.They are also big business: publicly traded for-profit education companies are crowding in.Most boot-camp students are between 22 and 35 and have a college degree.Some have developed an interest in programming since graduation, or see it as a route to higher pay.
Sarah Natow, a Harvard graduate, worked in museum fundraising until, dissatisfied with the non-profit sector, she gave up her job and started a course at General Assembly, a boot-camp in New York.She felt she needed "some skill set that would give me an entree into some other area", and General Assembly offered a fairly quick fix:three months for $13,500, as opposed to hundreds of thousands of dollars for a two-year masters programme.The first job after a boot-camp may not pay that well, explains Natacha Springer, who worked in biotech for ten years, took time off to bring up children, and then attended Flatiron.But she saw a 40% salary increase when she started her second job, and now works as a software engineer for a salary in six figures.
Boot-camps claim that over 95% of graduates find jobs as software engineers; starting salaries, they say, average around $65,000.Such claims are seldom independently verified.As the camps proliferate and more second-rate schools enter the market, quality may suffer.Critics also argue that no crash course can compare with a computer-science degree.They contend that three months’ study of algorithms and data structures is barely enough to get an entry-level job.
Until now, worries about quality have mattered only to those who can afford boot-camps or can secure private loans to attend: tuition fees range from $10,000 to $20,000.That is about to change.Last year the Department of Education announced a pilot programme to make federal funds available to boot-camps, which are currently unaccredited and whose students are therefore ineligible for federal aid.As part of the programme, up to ten accredited colleges will work in partnership with "non-traditional providers", like boot-camps, and the quality of the camps will be assessed by a third party.The goal is both to open the boot-camps to students from poorer backgrounds, and to improve oversight of the courses offered.
Many who follow the education business worry about federal involvement.For-profit education companies have a mixed history in America; they have been known to take federal money while overpromising, offering sub-standard instruction and saddling unsuspecting students with debt.So far, says Barmak Nassirian of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, boot-camps have not been proved to do much for low-income students without a college degree.
Mr Nassirian is right.The vast majority of today's boot-camp students are sophisticated consumers who have gone through college.They view the courses as an expensive but necessary add-on, and judge their quality by how much private investment they attract.That is how for-profit education companies should work.To offer these companies the open spigot of federal funding seems too risky, both for taxpayers and for student borrowers.