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.

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.


The Rise of Coding Bootcamps – National Consumers League


Coding schools are hot. A quick Google search removes any doubt about that. Countless pages of results follow a similar, well-worn format: an intensive course of anywhere from 3-6 months, taught by “experienced” programmers who have worked at “leading startups.” The sales pitch concludes with impressive graduation rates, salaries, and job placement statistics—and perhaps a list of the cutting-edge companies at which their alumni work, like Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

Coding bootcamps are a large and rapidly growing industry. In 2016, 91 schools raked in nearly $200 million in profits and graduated 17,966 coders. This was an eightfold increase from 2013, expanding to 69 cities across the United States (as well as other cities internationally). 

Where did these bootcamps come from? More importantly, how did they grow to their current size? To answer these questions, it’s important to look into the underlying societal and educational factors behind the rise of these short-term, high-octane programming schools.

At the height of the Great Recession, America’s slow, uneven recovery was led in large part by Silicon Valley. Even as earnings nosedived across the nation (and low-wage jobs grew to outnumber mid- and high-wage ones), tech continued its strong performance. In 2014, Silicon Valley salaries were up by an astonishing 30 percent, a bright spot that defied the nation’s otherwise inconsistent economic performance. Even today, amidst fears of a tech slowdown (characterized by declining venture capital and growing inequality), tech remains strong. In 2016, for the fifth year in a row, Silicon Valley was the fastest-growing economy in America; its 8.9 percent growth rate even outpaced China’s (which stood at 6.9). Salaries remain high, with intense competition for designers and programmers driving salaries of anywhere from $123,000 to $312,000 per year.


Given the high cost of a traditional four-year computer science degree and the fact that many students leave high school unprepared for the rigor of undergraduate (let alone graduate) education, coding bootcamps can be an attractive alternative for students who want to reap the benefits of the tech boom. Compare, for example, the $45,370 average annual tuition at a private college with the $11,451 price tag on the average coding bootcamp, and it’s easy to see the appeal of the second option. The hands-on experience afforded by a coding bootcamp (which is often missing in a four-year C.S. program) can also appeal to budding programmers. A 2015 Bloomberg profile of bootcamp students found that in addition to cost, they feared that traditional colleges would not offer the practical, real-world education that a bootcamp might.

Unfortunately, as we’ll explore in future posts, all that glitters about coding bootcamps is not gold. While many can and do offer an incredible opportunity to quickly set off down a new career path, the industry is rife with misleading and sometimes outright fraudulent claims. And, facilitated by lax government regulation, some unscrupulous schools take advantage of the very circumstances that have propelled the industry to such great heights.