Coding Bootcamp Claims: The truth behind the numbers – National Consumers League

They promise valuable skills, new careers, and higher salaries. They offer convenient and flexible schedules. But at the end of the day, for-profit schools are just businesses…and it’s all too easy for clever marketing to come between prospective students and realistic expectations.

A string of high-profile school closures has plagued the for-profit education sector for the past several years, including the 35,000-student ITT Educational Services, and all 28 campuses run by Corinthian Colleges. Unfortunately, a string of incidents suggest that some coding bootcamps may be following the same pattern. Though there have been some promising developments in the area of educator accountability, for the most part, graduation rates and job placement statistics remain uneven, confusing, and sometimes downright misleading.

Lack of transparency

At first glance, most coding schools boast impressive numbers. The outcomes page of the average bootcamp usually features impressive names and numbers, spanning world-class companies like Facebook, LinkedIn, Amazon, Capital One, and Paypal. Bootcamps often post sky-high job placement and graduation rates hovering above 90 percent.

Unfortunately, what are most impressive aren’t the statistics themselves—but the creative and sometimes diversionary formula used to create them. Few schools are audited by third-party organizations—a critical step to proving an institution’s credibility—and a 2016 survey by the International Business Times found that of 11 major coding bootcamps investigated, only one had its results verified by a third-party auditor. The survey criticized these schools for making little effort to substantiate what claims they made, such as by failing to disclose student completion rates, job placement rates, or both. These concerns were echoed in a 2016 assessment by the San Francisco Chronicle, which found serious discrepancies in the 2015 numbers for several schools.

One problem in particular—selection bias—has been found to be a serious problem with bootcamp claims. Without the presence of a third-party auditor, schools can choose to exclude groups of students at will, especially those who enroll without US residency and citizenship (but who pay the same rates as their American peers). Stretching the criteria for “personal emergency” is another tactic used to hide the graduates who are unable to find jobs.

In 2015, ten bootcamps sent a letter to then-President Obama, promising that they would commit and adhere to clearer standards in coding education. Among their commitments were disaggregating information—by ethnicity, religion, gender, and veteran status—breaking down how long it took various numbers of students to find jobs, and determining an accurate average salary among graduates.

Two years later, the first such initiative—which focuses on setting standards and defining responsible reporting—is now here. Seventeen schools have joined forces to form the Council on Integrity in Results Reporting (CIRR). Members include well-known schools, but it’s worth noting that the newly founded group does not include many other well-known bootcamps.

Still, the CIRR methodology is a big step forward, mainly because it emphasizes clear communication (results must be compiled in a single, clear report), stringent standards, and regular auditing. CIRR’s reporting requirements address in detail the statistical problems that have long plagued bootcamps. Notably, graduate job placement numbers must be broken down into categories like full-time, part-time, internship, apprenticeship, and entrepreneur.

Only time will tell whether the CIRR is as effective as it aims to be, but it is without a doubt a step in the right direction. In the absence of effective government intervention (the California-based Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education being a notable exception) the only consumer protection in the coding bootcamp industry comes from what is essentially a self-regulating industry group. And the CIRR, well-intentioned as it may seem, is not explicitly set up to assist consumers, even those enrolled in its member institutions. Instead, its main goal is to set standards for subscribing bootcamps—and in the process, boost these schools’ public image.

Though CIRR is a good start, the scope of its oversight is limited and its motivations are perhaps not entirely neutral. Until coding bootcamps are thoroughly regulated and vetted like traditional institutions of higher education, coding bootcamps may continue to have a suspect reputation in the minds of many prospective students.

For the love of chocolate…On World Chocolate Day, we look at the human cost behind chocolate – National Consumers League

chocolateday.pnghere’s no doubt that humans love chocolate. Globally, we consume $80 to $100 billion worth of it a year. Despite its popularity and the joy it gives us, there is a dark side to chocolate: cocoa, its main ingredient, is often produced by child labor. The US Department of Labor (USDOL) identifies this as the case in six countries: Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.

In two of those countries, the Côte d’Ivoire and Nigeria, USDOL notes there is forced labor on cocoa plantations. There is also evidence that thousands of children have been trafficked to work on cocoa plantations from neighboring countries Mali, Burkina Faso, and Togo.

Exploitation in chocolate’s supply chain became hotly discussed in 2000 and 2001 when media reports about wide-spread child labor in the West Africa nations of Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, where the majority of cocoa was being produced, were published.

Congressional leaders were alarmed about the reports. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) introduced legislation that would require child-labor free chocolate to be recognized with a label. The measure passed the US House of Representatives but it didn’t take long for everyone to realize that wanting child-labor free cocoa and delivering on that promise were two very different things. The nature of cocoa farming made it a very difficult crop to remove child labor from cocoa production. The region features hundreds of thousands of small cocoa farms operating in jungle-like topography. The region is lacking much infrastructure, including thousands of schools that would be needed to educate all the children working in cocoa.

In Congress, the chocolate companies hired two former majority leaders to lobby against the labelling requirement. A different course was needed. Rep. Engel and Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) worked to establish an innovative multi-stakeholder initiative to begin efforts to reduce child labor.

The so-called “Harkin-Engel Protocol” launched in September 2001 brought together eight of the largest chocolate companies, the government of the Côte d’Ivoire, the International Labour Organization’s International Programme to Eliminate Child Labour, the International Cocoa Organization, Free the Slaves, The Child Labor Coalition and the National Consumers League. Other signatories included Senator Herb Kohl (D-Wisc.), Harkin, and Engel. The agreement committed industry to work with NGOs and the West African governments to remedy abusive forms of child labor.

Unfortunately, despite the passage of nearly 16 years, child labor persists in West Africa’s cocoa plantations. A survey conducted by Tulane University researchers commissioned by the US Department of Labor released in 2015 found that although more children were going to school—a very good thing—there had been a 48 percent increase in the number of children in child labor in the Côte d’Ivoire from four years prior and only a little progress in reducing child labor had taken place in Ghana.

When you looked at both countries together, more than two million children were performing hazardous work in cocoa, including cutting down trees, burning fields, applying toxic chemicals, carrying heavy loads, and using machetes. Tulane found that the number of children exposed to hazardous chemicals had increased by 44 percent from four years earlier.

Researchers also noted that older children and young adults had been migrating away from cocoa-growing areas, leaving behind a very young and very old workforce.

Any way you slice your chocolate bar, much work remains to be done. While in Ghana researchers found that 96 percent of children attended school, in Côte d’Ivoire three in every 10 children in cocoa producing areas did not attend school.

The Framework for Action of the Harkin-Engel Protocol requires that 1.5 million children be removed from hazardous cocoa work by 2020. Unfortunately, sharply falling cocoa prices this year have not helped farmers earn sustainable livings in West Africa—one of the keys to reducing child labor.

The 2015 Tulane report suggests that new approaches to reducing child labor in the cocoa sector are needed and the current approaches are not working well enough. During the coming year, the Child Labor Coalition hopes to explore new ideas with the chocolate industry that may help alleviate this crisis.

In the meantime, consumers can express their concern about the situation to their favorite chocolate companies and try to identify the companies that go to lengths to work directly with farmers or cooperatives to improve farmers’ incomes. Divine Chocolate is one such company—farmers own the biggest share of the company. Divine is small but growing, and its innovative structure could be replicated by other companies.

We envision a day when consumers will have readily available child-labor-free chocolate to consume, so that they might enjoy delicious treats free from very negative human costs—child labor, child slavery, and child trafficking—associated with it. It’s certainly a goal worth working toward.

Coding Bootcamps: Who’s really in charge? – National Consumers League

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

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?

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.


Hotels holding consumers hostage with increasingly unfriendly cancellation policies – National Consumers League

Written by NCL Intern Trang Nguyen

Hotels used to let customers cancel their reservations up to 6pm on the day of arrival. This was the accepted norm for more than a decade. But this policy, which allowed flexibility for travelers, took a blow in 2015 when two big hotel chains, Marriott and Hilton, put into effect a penalty for last-minute cancellations. According to the new rule, cancellations later than 24 hours before the scheduled arrival date would result in a fee of one night’s room rate. There is no umbrella rule for cancellation fees for the hotel industry, which allows hotels to arbitrarily determine the cost. Depending on the destination and star-ratings, hotels are known to have charged up to three-night rates for resorts—or even allow no refund at all for the entire reservation.

Now, Marriott has announced a terribly anti-consumer policy: a three-day cancellation fee. In other words, if a consumer’s plans change within three days of travel, they get slammed with paying a full overnight stay—even if the hotel is able to re-rent the room and recoup all the money it would have lost from an empty room. Cancellation fees are punitive for both businesses and tourists. In 2014, the hotel industry collected $2.25 billion in fees and surcharges. These fees include in-room wifi, “resort fees,” and cancellation fees.

We did a little research and found some interesting information. The cancellation rates for online travel agencies (OTAs) (like Orbitz, Expedia, etc.) are significantly higher than those of reservations made directly to brand websites (i.e., or The cancellation rate from brand websites hovers at 19 percent, while the rate for popular OTAs run from 25 percent (Expedia) to 39 percent (Booking). A possible explanation for the difference may be that customers who book directly through brand website are more likely to be loyal customers, who are set to travel according to the planned booking. Bookings through OTAs can be more whimsical. OTAs send rigorous marketing campaigns to their subscribers, urging them to make reservations for limited, discounted offers even if they have no existing need to travel. Since OTAs often have flexible, free cancellation, and no booking fees, many subscribers end up making the reservation and cancel them later.

We think this new rule ought to be illegal because hotels can double dip, just like the airlines are currently allowed to do. We think fair is fair. If the customer cancels a booking and the hotel is able to re-rent the room, the hotel should be required to refund the customer’s payment. We ask Marriott executives: is it really fair for hotels to punish customers who might have to cancel their reservation because of an emergency or a change in the location of a business meeting or family event when you’ve been able to re-rent the room? Or is this just another way to gouge consumers whose plans change (often through no fault of their own)?

Hotels can also mitigate this problem by measuring the cancellation rate for each channel they distribute to, and giving lower quota and higher rates to sites with high cancelation rates. They can offer different payment options to discourage arbitrary booking behaviors or send reminders to fickle customers to reduce risk of last-minute cancellations. Hotels can also up their last-minute reservation game by investing and giving special deals on their mobile apps. Right now, OTA mobile apps dominate the industry when it comes to last-minute booking, with 70 percent of the market. If hotels can tap into that segment through their own apps, it could surely relieve them of higher commission to the OTAs.

Clearly, limiting the main source of cancellation, not upsetting loyal customers, and attracting more last-minute reservations through direct booking would be a win-win for hotel chains and consumers. And refunding canceling customers for a room that is ultimately is rebooked is only fair. 

High school students shocked at waste uncovered during cafeteria food waste audits – National Consumers League

“Schools are a place of learning. The cafeteria should be too!”

I’m willing to guess that if you ask almost any student their favorite school period, the resounding answer will be “lunch!” My memories of school lunch involve scarfing down a peanut butter sandwich and quickly catching up with friends before our 30 minutes were up. The cafeteria is hectic, lines are long, and many students rush through their meals in order to preserve time to socialize.  So too often, a hasty lunch period leaves trash bins overflowing with half-eaten sandwiches and other barely touched food items.

Food waste in American schools is a major problem. Studies have found that U.S. schools waste a total of about $1.2 billion annually. There are many theories as to why schools produce so much food waste, but in order to really identify the root causes, we have to get our hands dirty. And who better to dig into a messy issue than energetic high school students?

In the spring of 2017, students participating in LifeSmarts, NCL’s signature consumer literacy program, were given the unique challenge of conducting a food waste audit in their school cafeterias. Throughout the 2016–2017 academic year, LifeSmarts students studied the impacts of food waste that infiltrate almost every aspect of consumers’ lives. Students learned about the humanitarian and environmental impact of food waste. Having this background knowledge helped the students contextualize the auditing challenge within the discourse of the national and global food waste problem.

The terms of the challenge required students to conduct one audit in their cafeteria during one lunch period. Students worked with their peers to separate waste into five separate bins: unopened food, organic waste, liquid waste, recycling, and landfill waste. Students recorded the weight of each bin and answered a series of data-related and critical thinking questions, which gave them an opportunity to connect their real-life results with the national and global impacts of food waste.

Students’ reactions were diverse, and their suggestions inform insightful structural and policy solutions for preventing and reducing food waste in schools and communities.

One student shared:

“Before the food audit, we predicted that the amount of food wasted would peak at around 70 percent of the total weight of food received, however when we combined the total weight of food thrown away and the unserved cafeteria food we were astonished to find that the true amount of food wasted was around 85 percent.“

Some students went an extra step to try to understand why food was being thrown out:

“Additionally, we were interested in evaluating the variety, amount, and nutrition within the available choices and determine how healthy students are eating at our school. This data will be shared with the food distributer for our high school as well as the School Committee.”

Students were also confronted with limitations from their school board:

“Unopened food cannot be shared, saved, or removed from the school per BOE directives.”

“Prepared cafeteria foods that were untouched had to be disposed of as food waste.”

As students became aware of the issue, they presented next steps for increasing efforts to reduce waste:

“Our LifeSmarts Team could encourage the administration to make a student lunch advisory board to review the lunches and see which meals students are reluctant to consume.”

One of the most striking findings from the audit challenge is the combined metrics of waste generated.

Instead of throwing away unopened food, it could have been recovered or donated. The potential for food rescue is detailed in the table below. Amounts were calculated using Food Rescue’s conversion tool.

Items rescued 2,444
Meals rescued 488
Pounds of CO2e rescued (the amount of carbon dioxide which would have the equivalent global warming impact) 305.5

The feedback from students who completed this challenge demonstrates the value in conducting food waste audits. Many students expressed interest in conducting more audits to dig deeper into the issue. Others were energized to move forward with engaging community members and school administrators to experiment with new solutions.

In the 2017–2018 academic year, LifeSmarts students will build on the momentum from the first audit challenge and test strategies for reducing waste in their cafeterias. Students will be encouraged to run longer audits, implement solutions, and conduct a second series of audits to measure their success. By collaborating with school administrators, food service workers, and community partners, students will navigate our complex food system, providing opportunities for solution-making from the ground up.