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University-Run Boot Camps Offer Students Marketable Skills — but Not Course Credit

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Northeastern U. plans to offer a boot-camp-style program called Level at a space in downtown Boston. (Adam Glanzman, Northeastern U.)

Level, a venture that offers students courses in data analytics, has a motto of sorts. It’s written in large letters across the program’s website: “Real skills. Real experience. Two months.”

The motto sounds a lot like the boot-camp style of education offered by companies like General Assembly. But Level, a product of Northeastern University, is neither a private company nor a Silicon Valley startup. It is one of the first boot-camp programs created by a traditional university, and it exists alongside Northeastern’s master’s programs in subjects such as urban informatics and information design and visualization.

Level enrolls students for short, intense periods of study that do not lead to course credit. The program costs just under $7,000, and it caters to customers who want to make a quick career shift without investing in a master’s-degree program. Students who are enrolled in boot-camp-style programs like Level have not been eligible to receive federal financial aid, though that’s beginning to change, thanks to an experiment being announced on Wednesday by the U.S. Education Department. Northeastern says Level students can pay for their experience with the help of private lenders.

“This is pretty classic Clayton Christensen stuff,” said Nick Ducoff, Level’s founding director, referring to the academic who introduced the theory of “disruptive innovation,” which has drawn heavy criticism in higher-education circles.

Typically, boot camps run by private companies occupy a space that’s entirely separate from traditional degree programs. They advertise the value of experiential learning over the collection of academic credentials, and they attract students who don’t want to enroll in degree programs. They rarely count for credit.

For now, neither does Northeastern’s program. The boot camp is designed for students who wouldn’t normally pursue a Northeastern master’s degree, but who might be attracted to something requiring less of a long-term commitment of time. At the end of the program, students receive a certificate of completion.

But eventually, the university hopes, it will be able to offer credit that’s “stackable” toward a Northeastern master’s degree. Mr. Ducoff likens the flexibility to MIT’s new MicroMaster’s degree, a credential students earn when they complete half of a master’s degree online.

And maybe, Mr. Ducoff hopes, credits earned at a Northeastern boot camp could even become transferable to other colleges. “Given Northeastern’s top-50 ranking, it wouldn’t be surprising if others are willing to accept and articulate that credit,” he said.

As universities start to develop boot-camp programs, they might try to differentiate themselves from the private companies by granting credit, said Martin Van Der Werf, associate director of editorial and postsecondary policy at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce and a former Chronicle reporter.

“Universities are probably thinking about, ‘How can I incorporate these kinds of programs into my curriculum?’” he said. “I would think that universities would see that as being their competitive advantage.”

But some universities see noncredit programs as an asset. Soon after Level holds its first session in Boston, Rutgers University will launch its first coding boot camp in New Brunswick, N.J. Like Level, it is a certificate program that doesn’t offer course credit, and it currently has no plans to change that.

“One of the things that noncredit can do faster than credit is respond to employers’ needs,” said Jim Morris, an associate vice president in the university’s Division of Continuing Studies. “The university can’t be changing its curriculum every six months.”

But even without course credit, Mr. Morris said, taking a boot camp at a university comes with brand recognition. When applying for jobs, boot-camp graduates will be able to show employers a certificate from a university, rather than a private company.

“You and I know what a coding boot camp is,” Mr. Morris said. “Not every employer does.”

At nondegree boot camps — even at those run by universities — the curriculum typically isn’t vetted in the same way as a typical college course. But universities like Rutgers and Northeastern still hope that their programs will be seen as more academically rigorous than those run by private companies.

At the Rutgers boot camp, for instance, students must sign an agreement saying that they’re committed to completing the coursework. And at Northeastern’s boot camp, the curriculum is constructed both by professionals in the analytics industry and by internal subject-matter experts. The instructor, while not officially a faculty member, holds a Ph.D., and students will connect with potential employers throughout their time in the program.

“Just because we’re creating a new entry point and the program is shorter,” Mr. Ducoff said, “we’re not making any sacrifices on quality.”

Recently, the anxiety surrounding alternative credentials and microdegrees has focused on what new certification programs mean for the traditional degree. But from the institutions’ perspective, Mr. Van Der Werf said, university-run boot-camp programs are meant to work alongside their existing brands. “I don’t think they would see it as a way that’s going to draw away students.”

Mr. Morris, of Rutgers, took a similar view.

“This is not a computer-science degree,” he said. “No one would purport it to be. This is a targeted program aimed at specific skills that are in high demand by employers. A computer-science degree has a depth and a breadth and a rigor that comes with four years and 120-some odd credits.”

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