If the fundamental premise of President Obama’s new initiative to make community college free is to open up career and life opportunities for the nation’s young — especially those from underprivileged backgrounds — then the federal government should also be thinking of ways to cover the tuition costs of individuals attending coding boot camps. Instead of paying for a two-year community college program, the government could instead get more bang for less buck by paying for a 12-week program. That’s something that the nation’s first coding president should understand.
That’s because intensive coding boot camps are arguably more effective in terms of future employment prospects than traditional academic programs. For less than the projected $3,800 per year that the government is willing to pay in community college tuition, young members of the labor force would learn a new skill, meet new friends and potentially get a new job paying six figures. There are more than 65 coding boot camp options to choose from (including 43 full-time U.S. schools) now that they’ve exploded on the national scene, thanks to initiatives such as Code.org
Currently, the cost of a coding boot camp ranges from free (if you’re willing to do it all online by yourself) to almost $20,000 for a six-month program. The average tuition cost of a coding boot camp is $9,900. According to Obama, the cost of free tuition is about $3,800 per year, or $7,600 over a two-year time frame. You do the math. The average tuition cost for coding boot camps is just about the tuition cost of a typical two-year community college program.
The cost issue of coding boot camps is critical: They don’t qualify for tuition assistance from the federal government because they are private programs without formal academic accreditation. In short, you can’t get a Pell Grant for doing a coding boot camp. That means that the types of people who do coding boot camps right now are going to be the same types of people who already work in Silicon Valley — young white programmers with college degrees — not the types of undereducated, underprivileged youth that President Obama has in mind. In short, by making coding boot camps only available to members of society with the type of cash to absorb thousands of dollars in tuition costs upfront, it’s also unwittingly perpetuating the cycle of underrepresentation for the nation’s minorities in Silicon Valley.
Of course, there are those who claim that coding boot camps are little more than expensive vocational trade schools. They will argue that the employment claims are overblown, that the risks of signing up with an unaccredited academic program far outweigh the benefits, and that initiatives such as Code.org have been subverted to the interests of Silicon Valley’s tech companies, which are really just interested in an unlimited supply of cheap, highly-skilled workers.
However, viewed from the perspective of the nation’s IT skills gap — a gap that is projected to only widen over the coming decade – the concept of the coding boot camp makes sense. Students learn skills that are immediately transferrable to the real world and potentially land the type of employment opportunity that makes the initial upfront investment worth it. It’s simply a lot more efficient and cheaper to push people through a 12-week program than it is to wait for the uncertain prospects of a two-year community college program.
That’s mainly because not as many people finish community college in the traditional two-year timeframe as you might think. Only a third of people in community college get some kind of degree or certificate within six years. Yes, the new Obama community college tuition program builds in safeguards to ensure that it will only pay the tuition of students who are making real academic progress towards a final degree, but the fundamental problem is that there are far deeper socioeconomic problems for young students from underprivileged backgrounds that extend beyond just having enough money to pay for school. If a two-year program can become a six-year program, does paying for this really make economic sense and not just political sense?
At all levels of the educational spectrum, in fact, there’s a debate raging over whether or not getting a degree is worth it. Even a formal computer science degree from an accredited academic institution may be a waste of your time and money. No wonder coding boot camps have caught on in the public imagination. They are short enough that people have less likelihood of dropping out, and they are intensive enough that you walk away with concrete programming skills that are directly relevant to employers right now.
The good news is that the model for covering the tuition of the nation’s boot camps is also open to innovation. There are already some creative tuition models out there. In the model used by the Nashville Software School, you pay $1,000 upfront, and then your hiring company pays the school back after it’s hired you. In another example, App Academy doesn’t require any tuition payment until you find a software developer job after the program. These types of financing models open up a range of new possibilities. You’re not flipping the classroom — you’re flipping the tuition model. You pay tuition after you graduate, not before you graduate. Or you get employers to absorb the cost of tuition, not parents or family members.
That’s the type of innovation the nation really needs. President Obama’s new vision to make community college free (at least, the tuition part) and as universal as high school is an idea that sounds good in a State of the Union address, but is it really as relevant as it was when Obama first came into office? When it comes to thinking about the nation’s future IT skills gap, about what types of diverse graduates will be needed for America’s innovation future, it’s impossible to ignore the momentum that has been building around programming, coding boot camps and the Hour of Code. It’s time to turn that “hour of code” into a “lifetime of code” by thinking creatively about how to make coding boot camps accessible to everyone.