National Consumers League

Coding Bootcamps: Who’s really in charge?

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You’ve found a coding bootcamp that promises it all: a six-figure salary, positions at Uber, Google, Facebook, and Snapchat...all thanks to visionary founders and highly experienced instructors. But how much of it is hype?

As any graduate knows, success depends on qualified instructors creating a structured environment, where students have space to experiment, fail, and ultimately learn from mistakes. But as simple as this formula may be, it’s not enforced at every coding school.

In a free market driven by intense demand for programmers, one simple rule applies: if anyone can open a coding school, then anyone will. And despite the marketing hype that surrounds the coding bootcamp industry as a whole, there’s no guarantee that individual schools have the credentials to deliver on their promises.

Accreditation in coding schools

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In recent years, several bootcamps have been shut down by state authorities for a lack of accreditation, namely, a failure to meet educational standards. As an accredited institution, a school is held to high educational standards. By granting a school the proper credentials (and subjecting it to rigorous internal and external reviews), regulators put the government’s seal of approval on an institution, clearing the school to accept students.

From 2014 to 2016, under then-President Barack Obama, the Department of Education cracked down on for-profit schools, prohibiting them from using federal financial aid. The driving force behind the crackdown was widespread abuse, from blatant fraud at for-profit schools to systematic corruption on the part of accreditors and regulators.

All this is to say that there is already a substantial lack of oversight in the for-profit education sector, where neglect on the part of regulators allows unscrupulous operators to defraud students. The world of coding bootcamps is a veritable Wild West, anything-goes, environment—populated by both reputable institutions and fly-by-night operators.

In 2014, the Bureau for Private Postgraduate Education (BPPE) made an attempt to rein in the industry and threatened to shut down several California-based coding schools (among them Hack Reactor, App Academy, and General Assembly), unless they complied with regulations. Part of the problem was a question of jurisdiction: several of these schools didn’t recognize that BPPE’s authority includes both vocational and academic schools.

Even today, few bootcamps are accredited by the government. As of 2016, the BPPE had only certified five: Dev Bootcamp, Galvanize, General Assembly, Sabio, and Hackbright Academy.

Who’s running the show?

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In an industry fraught with inconsistency, the answer of course varies with the school.

On one end of the spectrum are the reputable institutions that are certified by accrediting bodies, including the BPPE. On the other end, there are convicted felons creating false credentials, posting fake student reviews, and disappearing with students’ tuition dollars.

The free-for-all nature of the coding bootcamp industry means that the barriers to entry are so low that nearly anyone can start a school, especially one that’s entirely online (many reputable schools offer face-to-face classes). One school was shut down by California authorities in late 2016 despite its attempts to force students to delete negative reviews. Those reviews that remain online paint a picture of a school rife with unqualified instructors—many of whom who could barely code themselves—poorly-planned curricula, and even the hiring of alumni to teach immediately after graduation (before they had an opportunity to build any real-world experience). Lacking any real programming skills, many of its graduates were unable to find jobs upon completing the program.

A lack of consistent standards for coding instructors is the problem, but neither the industry’s own disregard for accreditation, nor the pervasive Silicon Valley mindset—that startups are here to “move fast and break things”—are helping the situation. Even when offered the chance to partner with existing universities, one startup founder dismissed the idea of allying with traditional higher education, noting that such institutions moved too slowly—even as he himself lamented the lack of standardization in the coding bootcamp industry.

The problem is also that the “if anyone can do it, then anyone will do it,” rule applies broadly in for-profit education—and wherever the barriers to entry are too low, ultimately, the consumer suffers. Though certification presents a significant cost, both to regulators and bootcamp operators, in the end, credentialing heightens students’ trust in the legitimacy of teachers, and of coding schools as a whole.

In our next post, we’ll take a hard look at the numbers: namely, the statistics coming out of coding bootcamp marketing. Do they truly graduate as many students as they say they do? How many students really find jobs? In reality, the numbers don’t always have to be inflated to be misleading.