Over the last few years, many higher education experts have been looking at how coding bootcamps — short-term schools that give students a comprehensive education in a certain vocation — could help change the way that we pursue higher education. Bootcamps have started to gain more traction in the computer science industry, where there are hundreds of institutions — regional, national, and remote — which provide people with the education they need to prepare for a job in the technology industry. These bootcamps have developed a solid track record of helping students learn the skills they need effectively, and provide students with many resources to help them find employers, and succeed in interviews.
The Promise of Coding Bootcamps
Coding bootcamps are developing new and more efficient ways to educate students. These bootcamps have thrived on building models that fully align the incentives of the student and the school and embrace innovation to help them offer better services to their students. Bootcamps have leveraged the newest technologies and learning pedagogies available and have broken free from the restraints of traditional higher education. Most of these institutions operate remotely, do not offer tenure for staff, and focus solely on improving the quality of education, rather than extra-curricular services like Lazy Rivers and advanced sports teams. Bootcamps are unpacking the traditional further education experience and focusing on one feature: preparing people for a job. They don’t need to worry about dorms or advanced administrative teams.
But bootcamps have a series of problems. The first, and perhaps most commonly cited, is that you cannot currently use a Pell Grant or access other federal aid to cover your education. Coding bootcamps, unlike colleges, often do not confer accredited credentials, which means that the value of the credential a student receives is directly tied to the reputation of the institution — if the school fails, the credential may be worth very little. Despite these issues, the coding academy industry is growing significantly, while colleges are suffering their eighth year in enrollment decline. Traditional colleges could learn a lot from these models, and some are even experimenting with university-bootcamp partnerships, to better understand how they can improve their offerings.
How Bootcamp-University Partnerships Work
In November, Make School, a San Francisco-based coding school, announced that they were partnering with a small liberal arts college in the area. Dominican University, which has existed for 129 years, was focused primarily on liberal arts and did not offer many courses in technology subjects. Make School was looking for a way that they could get their program accredited so they can offer their students bachelor’s degrees — widely accepted by employers. This partnership represents how universities can embrace the innovation that bootcamps have brought into the higher education space, and learn directly from the people who have made these changes happen.
Make School and Dominican University’s partnership was made possible by Dominican’s regional accreditor, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) that has recently experimented with allowing colleges to partner with bootcamps to provide traditional degrees. The true promise in these partnerships is that all parties can benefit. Dominican University will be able to create their own computer science minor for students interested in technology at their school — an endeavor that typically costs millions of dollars and it can take years to plan programs, hire staff for them, and launch the minor. At the same time, Make School will be able to learn about the inner-workings of colleges — how they report data, manage federal aid, offer courses, among other things — which may help them in the future to become a fully accredited independent institution. In essence, this relationship is an incubation for Make School, and a lesson for Dominican in how to craft effective computer science offerings.
Coding bootcamps have been at the forefront of innovation in the education space for years, and this partnership would help bring Dominican into the 21st century and revolutionize their programs. These partnerships represent a way in which colleges can access this innovation without having to spend years on developing their own programs and researching how to effectively implement some of the practices used by bootcamps — the college can learn directly from the bootcamp. Partnerships like the one between Dominican and Make School may also help create a new revolution in education where private-market for-profit bootcamps become more central in the conversation around higher education.
Benefits of University-Bootcamp Partnerships
University-bootcamp partnerships could become more common as the Education Department considers new rules to encourage such partnerships. Both parties — the school and the bootcamp — can benefit significantly from these partnerships. One of the major issues with coding bootcamps right now is that, because they don’t confer traditional degrees, many people are skeptical of their value. Indeed, many coding bootcamps have a strong track record for success, but there will always be people who question the efficacy of these models. Accreditors serve a key role in higher education: to act as an independent body that surveys the quality of an educational offering. Therefore, prospective students can feel confident in the quality of their education — at least to an extent — as the accreditor has spent time verifying such details. Bootcamps becoming accredited would help them expand access to their services and encourage more people who would previously not have considered their programs to enroll.
In addition, these partnerships may also put more pressure on colleges to change their offerings. As discussions continue over reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, one of the common features that has been realized is addressing how colleges can improve their offerings. If more bootcamps were able to partner with universities, they could share best practices, technology, syllabi, and other materials to help the university improve their offerings. Further, the colleges that do not enter into such partnerships may be pressured to research doing so because there will be more competition around computer science majors — students may decide to go to a university that has partnered with a bootcamp based on the innovative learning approach they leverage. In a higher education market where it appears as if colleges are stuck in the past, bootcamps could help spark a transition toward more innovative approaches in teaching, and more focus on making students employable.
Indeed, colleges would have a lot to learn from bootcamps. Bootcamps have traditionally been very focused on providing career support to students — something which colleges have struggled with in recent years. Bootcamps could help colleges adopt best practices around how to get their graduates hired, and encourage colleges to focus more on teaching students the skills they need to succeed in a job. Bootcamps could also assist colleges in focusing more on student outcomes and graduation rates — a central concern for bootcamps — which may help colleges move their focus on student success over other services like administration.
Education Department Interest in University-Bootcamp Partnerships
There are very few bootcamp-university partnerships right now, but interest in this concept is growing. The Department of Education has been interested in vocational institutions for a while, and is considering proposals that could make these partnerships more viable for colleges. One proposal set forth by Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education, would remove restrictions on accredited colleges to outsource entire educational programs to external providers. At present, colleges can only outsource 50 percent of their services to non-accredited providers, and this would mark a major change in how higher education would operate. These policies would mean that the non-accredited institutions who work with colleges may be able to access federal financial aid, and the college could confer degrees to the students of the non-accredited institution.
The Obama Administration also piloted a program that would have allowed bootcamps to access federal financial aid in partnership with traditional colleges and universities. The Educational Quality through Innovation Partnerships program, or EQUIP, was designed to help coding bootcamps expand access to their programs for low-income students, who would traditionally depend on financial aid from the government to help them pay for college. The program selected eight schools to pilot the idea, but eventually the program was phased out. The Education Department has recently become more interested in more innovative approaches to higher education though, and the aforementioned proposal by DeVos could be the start of significant changes in how bootcamps and universities can partner.
Will University-Bootcamp Partnerships Revolutionize Higher Education?
Critics do have a few concerns about such partnerships. Many people have speculated that more college-bootcamp universities could result in the integrity of accreditation being compromised — it would be easier for institutions to get accredited, and so perhaps lower-quality institutions may be accredited. Accreditors may also be pressured to lower their standards to account for the new techniques used by bootcamps. On the other hand, perhaps these partnerships will encourage accrediting bodies who suffer from a number of issues to evolve and start focusing more on the practices they can expect to see in the future. Smaller schools may also decide to outsource most of their offerings which would significantly affect students success and result in corporations becoming heavily involved in colleges.
Bootcamp-college partnerships will not solve all of the systemic issues that higher education faces. Higher education still suffers from affordability, accountability, and access problems that these partnerships will not fully address. However, bootcamp-college partnerships would help colleges evolve and modernize their offerings — perhaps even allow smaller colleges to develop new computer science programs, as well. Colleges such as the University of Southern California and the University of Denver are already starting to develop their own in-house bootcamps, but these partnerships could accelerate the process.
These partnerships also provide benefits for all parties involved: the bootcamp can confer accredited degrees and learn about college operations; the college can learn about how bootcamps work and; students can access a high-quality education that is overseen by the college and earn an accredited degree in the process. It is unclear whether or not such partnerships will expand, but smaller colleges are struggling more in the higher education market — these partnerships could potentially give them a few more years, or help revitalize old institutions.