Coding bootcamps: Can you believe their claims?

The bootcamps promise 12-week immersive training programs, but critics say high job placement numbers may not be credible. Will federal loans help or undermine credibility and costs?  

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters/File
President Obama talks with Adrianna Mitchell, a student from Newark, N.J., during a "Hour of Code" event at the White House in December 2014. For-profit coding bootcamps, which offer immersive training in as little as 12 or 14 weeks, have been touted as a benefit for career-changing students, but critics say they could raise some of the same concerns as other for-profit colleges.

To many students and career-changers hoping to gain programming skills and break into the lucrative tech world, coding bootcamps can seem like a promising option.

Since 2012, such bootcamps have offered hands-on, intensive technical training in as little as 12 weeks, boasting job placements as high as 98 or 99 percent once students complete the program.

But while advocates pitch them as an alternative to a traditional degree program, critics point to their high tuition — often as much as $14,000 — noting that they aren’t overseen by traditional third-party accreditors, unlike many other institutions, including for-profit colleges.

The bootcamp credibility debate takes place against the backdrop of a federal panel's vote to shut down the largest accreditor of for-profit colleges on Thursday. The move to shutter the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools came after criticism from the US Education Department, which has noted that ACICS had repeatedly accredited schools such as the troubled Corinthian Colleges.

But coding bootcamps, which are often backed by venture capital funding, have gained a champion in Education Department Undersecretary Ted Mitchell. He’s pitching the programs as a way to help broaden access to high-quality education for low-income and non-traditional students.

There is a moral problem and we must do whatever we can to open the doors to higher-ed opportunity for learners who are not adequately served,” Mr. Mitchell told EdSurge in October.

Last fall, the department introduced a pilot program that would allow traditional institutions – ones that partner with coding bootcamps and agree to a third party audit – to be eligible for federal financial aid.

The department’s program, known as Education Quality through Innovation Partnerships (EQIP), allows the programs to be audited by a third-party “Quality Assurance Entity” of their choosing, while the college's own accreditor must also approve.

The federal support comes amid long-running questions about how the coding bootcamps arrive at their job placement numbers.

“Oftentimes, boot camps will make these numbers up,” Jonathan Lau, co-founder of SwitchUp, an independent directory of bootcamp reviews and rankings told the International Business Times in February. “They’ll exclude students who they think were bad and mark them as a failed student and do all sorts of weird things that bump up their numbers and make it look better. With a third-party auditor, you can’t really do that.”

In March 2015, a group of some of the most prominent coding bootcamps, including New York’s Flatiron School and San Francisco-based App Academy sent a pledge to President Obama promising to release standardized, audited reports on student outcomes each year. But nearly a year later, IBT reported, only the Flatiron School has released an audited report.

Last year, the school reported a 99 percent graduation rate based on an audit by Moody Famiglietti and Andronico, a Massachusetts-based certified public accounting firm.

Out of the 205 students (or 84 percent) who were considered to be “job seeking” — or working with the school’s job placement services — Flatiron says 55 percent got a job within 30 days of beginning their search, while 98 percent were placed after 120 days.

Beyond the numbers, how students should pay for the programs is another concern. That’s fueled a move towards startups, including Skills Fund and Earnest, that lend students money to attend the programs, NPR reports.

“Most of our programs have guaranteed financing,” Shawn Drost, a co-founder of San Francisco-based bootcamp Hack Reactor told NPR last year. “We ship the private lenders our sheets of graduates and defaulters and they end up charging like 10 percent interest, and students pay it back within in a year."

Affirm, a company headed by Paypal founder Max Levichin, lends to riskier boot camp borrowers at annual interest rates of up to 20 to 30 percent.

While it’s not an exact comparison, the Education Department’s interest rate for federal loans for graduate and professional students is currently 5.84 percent and students make payments for a much longer period.

For some longtime observers, giving schools access to federal loans or Pell Grants could raise some of the same problems students faced at for-profit colleges.

Since none of the programs have directly begun accepting federal student aid, notes Robert Shireman, a former Education Department official, that also limits the options for low-income students.

“It is worth remembering that the for-profit college scandal, which is still in the process of being cleaned up, began as a noble effort to allow companies to gain access to federal funds only if they ran innovative training programs that led to good jobs,” Mr. Shireman, now a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, wrote in a blog post in September.

“We must be careful that, in opening federal aid to coding boot camps, we do not let that happen again.”

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