Like the rest of the world, higher education is changing. While the four-year degree still reigns supreme, alternate credentials like MOOCs, badges and bootcamps are showing that there is a different way to fill skills gaps and train our workforce more quickly and dynamically. The Obama administration focused a lot on alternative credentials and I believe the new administration will as well, because ultimately, these kinds of education are focused on helping people get jobs.
For coding bootcamps in particular, the promise has been that students will get the specific technical skills they need for software development jobs, and they’ll learn those skills fast. “Spend 12 (or 10, or 15) weeks with us,” the advertising goes, “and you can change your future in a real, tangible way.” And I believe in this promise. The Software Guild, Learning House’s coding bootcamp, has always prided itself not only on helping graduates have the technical skills needed for success in the job market, but also in having a robust employer network to make finding those jobs easier and in helping students practice the soft skills that are essential to be a good and productive teammate and colleague.
But, as with all advertising, mileage may vary. Bootcamps like to advertise their job placement rates, and they do so in good faith. But some of that data may be portrayed inaccurately or lead to confusion, because no one has really defined what “job placement” means. Is it simply being employed after graduation? Is it being employed in a tech field? Or to narrow it down further, is it being employed using the very skills learned in the bootcamp? A lot of bootcamp graduates go on to work in things like IT project management or doing quality assurance testing — these are important, worthwhile jobs, but it may not be clear to those searching for coding bootcamps that these are the kinds of jobs graduates are getting. They are likely operating under the assumption that job placement rates refer specifically to coding roles. This is one of those situations where no one is wrong or deceptive, but miscommunication can happen.
Why Transparency Matters
Since bootcamps have started, I have maintained that the free market will be the best ensurer of their viability. Bootcamps are mostly private, for-profit entities, and people pay for them out of pocket. And since most people don’t have a spare $12,000 laying around, they have to turn to lenders, like Skills Fund or private banks. The entities making loans are not going to invest in a bad bet — they want to know that this education will pay off and their loans will be repaid by people who get jobs after graduation and increase their salary.
Some people may be having flashbacks to the for-profit university world, but I actually think the situation with bootcamps is different. For-profit universities like the University of Phoenix got most of their revenue from federally backed student loans, while bootcamps have people who are paying their own way or using private lenders. The government was lax about measuring outcomes (until it wasn’t), but private lenders are always going to want to know they are making a good bet when they sign an agreement to lend someone money. That has helped the current system work in the bootcamp space.
But it can work even better when there is transparency in data collection and distribution. I don’t mean honesty — we already have honest providers reporting numbers they believe. But I do mean that we need more clarity about how data is gathered and what different categories mean. What is a “job placement?” How is the rate calculated? What kind of salary increases do people see and when? The more we all agree on what these terms mean, the better the data will be.
That matters not just because I like to have good data, but because it helps people make smart decisions for themselves. People who attend coding bootcamps are looking for a practical solution to getting a better job and becoming a part of a growing economy. There are a lot of providers out there now and a lot of choices to be made. Having clear, easy-to-understand data will help people make the right decision for themselves and help them set themselves up for success. And that benefits all of us, because it produces more skilled workers who contribute more to the economy and who don’t default on their loans to pay for that education.
The CIRR Initiative
So how do we achieve that better transparency? Part of the challenge has been that there has been no central authority validating the data bootcamps claim. Higher education has accreditors that keep colleges and universities mostly to task (although because they don’t really focus on outcomes like employment after graduation or the ability for students to pay back loans, accreditors do not really measure success in the same way we are discussing). But as I mentioned above, bootcamps have been self-governed. Because bootcamps have been relatively selective, and because of the high price point, that self-governance has worked. But as the industry continues to grow, the need for third-party data validation is becoming more important.
Enter the Council on Integrity in Results Reporting (CIRR). CIRR was started by Skills Fund, Course Report and 15 coding bootcamps to set a national gold standard for reporting, publishing and marketing student outcomes, all meant to create better accountability, trust and transparency in coding bootcamps. It’s no accident that Skills Fund is an important part of CIRR, because it has a vested interest in ensuring that coding bootcamps are delivering on their promise to provide strong outcomes — as a lender in the industry, it wants to know its investments will pay off. But I am especially pleased that coding bootcamps (including The Software Guild, which Learning House owns) are a part of this initiative. By working together, we can help set the standard of transparency. Some coding bootcamps, like Flatiron, already have done their own third-party audits, and I think that’s fantastic. Eventually, I would hope we could all work together to ensure consistency and keep the industry moving forward.
How It Works
Verification. All data that bootcamps provide will be audited by independent third parties, to ensure that bootcamps are accurately representing what the data really says. This means that potential students will know that the data they are seeing is a true representation of the outcomes these bootcamps can provide.
Simplicity. CIRR is going to produce one report for all student outcomes. Like Consumer Reports or Kelley Blue Book, this will provide a “one-stop shop” to get all the information needed to compare different bootcamps and understand the different metrics. Data will be presented consistently, terms will be clearly defined and potential students will have the information they need to make the best decision for themselves.
Transparency. As I’ve said, I don’t think any bootcamp provider has lied about its data. What I do think is that there are a lot of ways to represent data, and that currently, some of the data comes with caveats. Thanks to CIRR, those caveats will no longer be footnotes, but will be openly discussed, or the data won’t even be used. Users will know where the data came from and what it means.
CIRR is expecting to release its first report in the first half of 2017. I think this initiative is an important step forward for the industry, making us better at what we do and holding us to a higher standard. The public’s trust is critical, and I believe we produce strong enough outcomes that we should welcome verified reporting of those outcomes. Creating an industry culture of honesty and transparency will prove our value and help set bootcamps up for long-term success.