The college admissions bribery scandal highlighted the influence of wealth and brought a new spotlight on the so-called “back door” into higher education, where wealthy parents are able to get preferential treatment for their students in exchange for making a donation to the school. This made more people question the prospects of going to college, an institution where people with wealth can obtain an edge over other candidates. In addition, as the price of college continues to appreciate — college tuition is growing at almost eight times the rate of inflation — workers are looking for more affordable alternatives that will allow them to acquire the skills they need to thrive in the modern workforce. Students are taking out more loans to finance their education — the average student loan size for the Class of 2018 was $29,800 — which leaves many students with a debt they cannot repay. That is assuming, of course, that students graduate: only around 57 percent of college students complete a degree within their first eight years of enrolling.
The problems around cost and mistrust in the institution are only two of several. But perhaps the one that has caught more attention — especially recently — is the ability of universities to help students break into well-paying jobs in technology. Indeed, a recent OECD analysis found that around one in seven jobs is at risk of full automation, and another 30 percent will likely be overhauled in the near future. Students who attend college expect a high-quality education that will prepare them for life, but colleges have failed to keep up with the changing nature of the workforce. The traditional view of universities is that after getting a degree you would be able to unlock better jobs and higher salaries, which, to an extent, is still true. But more students even with a degree are struggling to find jobs, and the relevance of many of the things taught at college is being called into question.
The Promise of Coding Bootcamps
As more people continue to question the underlying value proposition of higher education, bootcamps have gained more traction as a viable alternative. Vocational bootcamps — which have become very common in the programming industry — are short-term training programs that offer students access to a comprehensive education in a certain subject. The courses offered by bootcamps are unaccredited — they cannot confer traditional degrees — and often hold less prestige than colleges, which are the hallmark of American higher education. Despite the image of bootcamps, they have the potential to change the way that higher education operates, and educate the next generation of workers who are preparing for more technological disruption in their jobs. Indeed, the coding bootcamp market has grown 11x since 2013, according to a study by Course Report, an industry research firm.
There are a few reasons why coding bootcamps are in a good position to disrupt higher education. The first is that these institutions maintain a strong focus on skills development and preparing their workers for the specific scenarios they might encounter when looking for a job in a certain field. Indeed, coding bootcamps are training workers in the skills that American businesses are looking for. For example, Thinkful, a prominent coding bootcamp which offers short-term training programs, provides students with courses in web development, data science, and more — all in-demand fields with many employers. In contrast, traditional colleges often teach from a syllabus which may or may not reflect the specific skills employers are looking for. Bootcamps also maintain a strong focus on ensuring all of their offerings are relevant. One of the biggest problems with traditional higher education is that some knowledge taught is not applicable to the modern workforce. Coding bootcamps, on the other hand, have to offer up-to-date services in order to compete with traditional college programs.
Small and Efficient Faculty
Coding bootcamps are also a great example of how a school’s faculty should be arranged. Administrative bloat is a key problem in higher education, which has become even more of a problem as the federal government continues to subsidize faculty. Administrators in traditional schools can serve many valuable functions, including sourcing research and materials for professors, helping aid in course development, among other things. But universities are now comprised of even more administrators and even fewer faculty members. The Office of the President of the University of California in recent years has had around 2,000 employees, none of whom teach. To be fair, the UC system is one of the largest college networks in the US, but this amount of administrators is unnecessary.
The University of Michigan has had over 90 diversity administrators. Coding bootcamps, on the other hand, have been renowned for keeping their operations lean and streamlined. Bootcamps like Thinkful are focused purely on skills development and preparing students for jobs, and so need fewer faculty than traditional universities. Bootcamps have no reason to hire hundreds of employees to manage admissions or diversity or various other components of education — their services are solely focused on providing a high-quality education. In addition, bootcamps have an incentive to keep operations lean — doing so will help reduce the cost of tuition, which will encourage more people to attend their institution. Conversely, high administrative costs would push up the price of tuition, which would mean less people would consider a bootcamp — low prices is a major edge vocational bootcamps have over traditional higher education. Traditional colleges do not face this pressure — although it is worth noting that there is a changing sentiment toward this problem — because their image and public perception encourages new students to apply year-over-year.
Focus on Employment
Coding bootcamps are also focused on helping graduates get hired as soon as they leave the institution. General Assembly, another coding bootcamp, employs career coaches whose job it is to prepare students for a job. In General Assembly, students are taught how to become a competitive job seeker and write good job applications, how to pitch yourself as a candidate to an employer, among other things. Further, students at General Assembly will create a custom job plan with the support of a career coach, which helps give them direction as to what they need to do to reach their goals. Coding bootcamps often embed career support into the traditional curriculum, which provides students with even more opportunities to learn about the relevance of the skills they are learning, and how they can use those skills in the workforce. Traditional universities, however, are more focused on teaching students and so put less of an emphasis on hiring support. Many universities offer students access to a low-quality career support program, which may be down to the diversity in majors in colleges; coding bootcamps, on the other hand, only offer courses in coding.
Lambda School, another coding bootcamp, has developed a large hiring network which gives students a better chance of finding a job at a great company. Students at Lambda School are able to access career coaches and a community of employers who are interested in hiring graduates from the institution. Further, Lambda school also provides local mentorship services where eligible students will be partnered with a mentor who will provide students with additional support on their job search. This is in contrast to the traditional model of higher education, where students are often expected to find a job by themselves after graduation, without personal introductions from their school and their career counselors. Overall, coding bootcamps, unlike higher education, are focused on helping students get a job as soon as possible, and have a strong incentive to do so — their reputation will suffer if graduates do not succeed.
Coding bootcamps do face a few problems, however. The first is that coding bootcamps may face problems as macroeconomic conditions change. Coding bootcamps have thus far been successful in achieving their goal of educating students and preparing them for the labor force. However, if market conditions become more restrictive, employers may start to demand more workers with a degree. Following the 2008-09 recession, more people started to enroll in university who had lost their jobs or were unable to find a good job at the time, which meant that employers could access even more degree-holding prospective employees.
Another problem that coding bootcamps may face is that they may not be able to expand outside of programming. The coding bootcamp model has succeeded so far because bootcamps have helped students learn the skills they need to thrive in a career in technology. However, the prerequisites for breaking into a career in technology are often very clear, which makes it easier for bootcamps to tailor their curricula to the needs of employers. In fields such as medicine, job requirements are more difficult to understand, and it is unclear whether or not bootcamps would be able to use their disruptive model for these fields. That being said, the bootcamp model has recently started to extend outside of the programming sector. FlockJay, for example, is a 12-week training bootcamp which helps students acquire the skills they need to get a good job in technology sales.
Coding Bootcamps and Lifelong Learning
Although vocational bootcamps may encounter some problems, their future is strong. Coding bootcamps are in a good position to expand into offering lifelong learning opportunities for students. As the labor force changes — millions of jobs are expected to be replaced by automation, Artificial Intelligence, and other emerging technologies in the future — it will be even more important to offer students with lifelong learning opportunities so they can keep up and continue to look attractive to employers. Indeed, in the future attending college may not be enough for students to stay viable in the labor market — they may need to go back to school to acquire new skills. Bootcamps have an incentive to maximize their profits as a for-profit institution, and expanding into lifelong learning would be a reasonable next step. Bootcamps are in a good position to expand because they do not suffer from many of the constraints that traditional academia experiences.
Vocational bootcamps already teach a large amount of knowledge in a short period of time, and their curricula reflect that fact. Therefore, it would likely not be very difficult for them to adapt their syllabi to support people who are looking to acquire more skills as the labor force develops. Further, bootcamps also frequently update their offerings in order to stay relevant as the skills employers demand change. This means that they often are already prepared for the changes that workers are only just realizing, and can position themselves as a strong way in which people can acquire the skills they need to keep up with the changing labor market. In addition, coding bootcamps, as aforementioned, have lower faculty numbers and are generally more able to adapt their offerings due to a lack of bureaucracy. This means that they will encounter less problems in evolving to the demands of employers, and will be able to quickly transition to the needs of new workers. Finally, bootcamps offer short-term training programs already — unlike colleges where you need to attend four-years to receive a credential — which integrates well with the ideal length for lifelong learning courses.
The Future of Coding Bootcamps
Coding bootcamps are becoming an increasingly popular way for people to acquire the skills they need to thrive in the modern labor force. Recent tuition increases and a series of scandals in academe have made more people search for alternative options to traditional college. Bootcamps have created a scalable model in which students and hiring is at the core of the educational experience. Students are able to learn industry-relevant skills when studying at a bootcamp, and are able to access a variety of hiring resources which have been designed to help students succeed in the modern labor force. Further, bootcamps operate under a lighter model with fewer administrators and bureaucracy, which makes it easy for them to adapt to changing demands from both workers and employers. Although bootcamps have problems to overcome — namely, adapting when market conditions change — they will play a key role in the future of skills development. Colleges should be taking note.