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Connect with the people and ideas reshaping higher education, written by Goldie Blumenstyk. Delivered on Wednesdays.

October 9, 2019

From: Goldie Blumenstyk

Subject: Tech-Skills Boot Camps Are on the March

You’re reading the latest issue of The Edge, a weekly newsletter by Goldie Blumenstyk. Sign up here to get her insights on the people, trends, and ideas that are reshaping higher education.

I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education, covering innovation in and around academe. Here’s what I’m thinking about this week.

Tech-skills boot camps are on the march.

General Assembly, a company that teaches tech skills, is teaming up with an online-program-management company called Noodle Partners to develop boot camps with college partners. Their first deal is with University of Virginia’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies.

Partnerships between boot camps and colleges aren’t that novel anymore. So, even before this announcement became public, I’d been trying to figure out why it might matter to anyone other than the parties involved.

For sure, I know some with a penchant for insider ed-tech gossip (no judgement here; I count myself in that camp) will relish the news that Noodle’s founder, John Katzman, had found another way to compete with, and annoy, 2U, a major OPM company. Katzman co-founded 2U in 2008 but now publicly derides it as caring more about stockholders than students or educators.

Six months ago, 2U spent $750-million to buy Trilogy Education, which specializes in developing boot camps in partnership with colleges. Trilogy now has 49 university partners. Katzman, little known for modesty, predicts that Noodle and GA could have as many as 50 partner colleges within two years. “This is a better program and more accountable program, so there‘s no reason we shouldn’t be fiercely competitive,” Katzman told me.

I love a good catfight. But that’s not my reason for writing about boot camps. Rather, even ignoring Katzman’s bravado, it’s because I’m not the only observer of this sector who believes this move could further fuel the movement toward boot camp-university partnerships. Already, companies like Fullstack Education and Software Guild work side-by-side with colleges, while the Flatiron School, fresh off its successful, credit-bearing summer program at Yale University, is reportedly now looking to develop similar programs at other institutions as well. An even more interesting model can be found at Make School in San Francisco, which offers tech skills and a bachelor’s degree in conjunction with Dominican University.

With enrollments in MBA and other master’s programs softening, colleges may well see adding the option of short-term boot-camp offerings as a smart hedge.

If colleges do indeed continue to embrace this trend, they will be entering a sector where reliable data on student outcomes is still decidedly hard to come by — and hype often overtakes reality.

The hype makes it even difficult to estimate the size of the boot-camp sector. One of the few entities that tracks boot-camp industry is a company called Course Report, which produces an annual document predicting the number of graduates that coding boot camps are likely to produce in future years. But when you look back at their predictions compared to what they later report — which I did — you find that their estimates for market growth were consistently inflated. For example, in its 2017 report, it predicted there would be 22,949 coding school graduates in that year. (Yes, it was the precise.) But the 2019 report, which looks back on historical trends, reports 16,190 actual graduates. In 2018 it predicted 20,314; actual numbers for that year, as reported a year later, were 15,429.

Liz Eggleston, co-founder of Course Report, says the predictions are based on information supplied by the schools.

Outcomes data on boot-camp students are equally difficult to find. A fledgling membership organization called Council on Integrity in Results Reporting has developed reporting standards for its members, but fewer than two-dozen schools participate, and its publicly available data is, in the words of one lender in the industry, hard to find and “kind of wonky.”

Trilogy is not a member of CIRR and doesn’t now publish data on student outcomes. (It says it has completion rates of over 90 percent.) 2U recently announced a “framework for transparency” in the OPM market, including a pledge to report on graduation rates of its academic partners. A company spokesperson said that under the framework, Trilogy will publish some outcomes data beginning in 2020.

General Assembly has made a point of establishing a set of standards, developed by an auditor, by which it measures students’ graduation and job-placement rates, and makes the results public. But because it takes time to have the data audited, there’s a time lag. It’s most current publicly available data covers students who completed in December 2017.

Loan companies that serve the boot-camp market may have some of the best insights into the sector, but the detailed data they have that might help students find schools with the best results is proprietary. One of them, Climb Credit, which lends to students at fewer than 100 schools, tells me that the average graduation rate at its partners is 94 percent. An executive at the Skills Fund, another lender, says loan-default rates for its students range from 4 to 6 percent. If employers weren’t satisfied, he told me, the boot camps would be out of business.

Right now, most boot camps operate separately from traditional higher ed. But the more creative universities get with these partnerships — and especially if Congress moves to expand eligibility for federal student aid to shorter-term programs — they’ll be in the heart of the postsecondary ecosystem as a tool for improving students’ employability.

I don’t know how else this sector might evolve, but I find it intriguing that some folks are trying to sort it out. Next month, in fact, Skills Fund will be hosting a small, private convening of boot-camp leaders and policy makers to sort through issues like expanding access to underrepresented populations, new student-financing options, and regulatory challenges. (Sample language from the agenda shared with me: “Can one bad actor ruin the boot-camp brand?) One thing is clear: Boot camps are not disappearing.

Going to Chicago for Educause? Let’s catch up.

The easiest way to find me is in The Chronicle booth in the exhibit hall, No. 1131, next Tuesday and Wednesday. My colleagues Scott Carlson and Beth McMurtrie will be around too. Please stop by to say hi — and share a tip or an insight that I might include in next week’s newsletter. Oh and yeah, we’ll also have some fun, fresh-from-the printer swag.

Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know, at goldie@chronicle.com.

The veteran reporter Goldie Blumenstyk writes a weekly newsletter, The Edge, about the people, ideas, and trends changing higher education. Find her on Twitter @GoldieStandard. She is also the author of the bestselling book American Higher Education in Crisis? What Everyone Needs to Know.