The Problem with Bootcamps: Research Uncovers Transparency Issues
Disruption has been a pervasive theme in higher education in the last decade. First came the expansion of for-profit institutions, bringing rapid growth and an influx of new providers to the sector. Most of these institutions were accredited, accepted federal financial aid, and offered credentials similar to those in other parts of higher education. This was followed by the introduction of massive open online courses (MOOCs), led by big names in higher education, which hinted at the potential of distance learning without credentialing. Coding academies or “bootcamps” followed closely behind and looked much like a hybrid of the MOOC and for-profit models—new providers offering intense career training programs with no culminating credential.
The narrative around bootcamps has been about their potential to catapult historically disadvantaged and diverse student populations into the relatively non-diverse tech labor force by bypassing traditional higher education. As researchers interested in issues of equity in higher education, we tried to learn more about these innovative educational models as they were establishing a firm hold in the market, only to find a striking lack of information and transparency within this sector. Nearly all the available data came from industry groups promoting their member bootcamps to prospective students and employers. There was no objective, comprehensive data on bootcamps. With support from RTI International, we set out to fill this void by conducting a universe study of bootcamps. We were surprised to find that the public perception of bootcamps did not align well with the data we collected—that is, where the data were available at all.
By our estimate in 2017 there were 1,387 bootcamp programs specializing in computer science related fields, data science, information technology or related fields worldwide, with 1,010 of these offered by 198 providers in the U.S., Canada, or online. Most providers were small, offering only three programs. We focused on bootcamp programs, rather than bootcamp graduates or enrollees, because without a clear understanding of the universe of bootcamp providers and the programs they offer—their intensity, duration, cost and more—it would be impossible to understand and contextualize the experiences of bootcamp participants.
The common perception is that bootcamps are intensive, comprehensive, months-long career-preparatory programs designed for people hoping to move into high-skill technology careers. Instead, we found that only 50 percent of the bootcamp programs offered in the U.S., Canada, and online fit in this category. Thus, only half of all bootcamp programming consists of the type of career-preparatory programs that are synonymous with “bootcamp” in the media. Of the other half of the programs, most were standalone courses–similar in curricular scope to a college course.
Our research revealed how little we—and other researchers, policymakers and stakeholders—know about bootcamps. In the course of our work we identified several facts that aren’t widely known that we think deserve more attention by higher education professionals and researchers.
First, unlike MOOCs and many for-profit institutions, many bootcamps have selective admissions criteria. We determined that almost 60% of comprehensive career preparation programs have competitive admission requirements including such steps as aptitude testing, interviews and assessment of applicant “fit.” Just 16% have minimal requirements, and 25% are open access. While it makes sense that bootcamps want to ensure students have the necessary background to successfully complete a program, questions of access loom large. What types of preparation, technical and non-cognitive skills, and/or credentials are necessary to gain access to a given bootcamp or bootcamps generally, and what implications does that have for diversifying the tech labor force?
Second, bootcamps are expensive. Most comprehensive career preparation programs are full-time, in-person programs, with an average length of 16.5 weeks and an average cost of almost $12,000—similar to one year of in-state graduate tuition. Many offer some form of financial aid, though most aid is in the form of private loans from two lenders specializing in this market. While income-based repayment programs are highly touted, they are relatively rare.
Finally, bootcamps publish very little data on student demographics, admissions, completions or job placements. Although a couple of industry market research organizations do collect and publish data on demographics, their narrower definitions of bootcamps and market-driven approach to data collection make it impossible to generalize from their findings. A small number of bootcamps provide completions and some outcomes data voluntarily through the Council on Integrity in Results Reporting. Although this is a good start, it is insufficient to assess the sector generally.
Bootcamps are an unregulated, unaccredited sector of higher education in which we found little transparency and no independent outcomes data. This lack of available data leaves students, parents, researchers and other stakeholders unable to evaluate the prospective costs and benefits for students and forces students to choose between bootcamps with little or no comparable data on completion or job placement rates.
Our findings, taken together, reveal several issues that merit further exploration. First, to what extent are bootcamps contributing diversity to the tech workforce? Are they welcoming an alternative population into the industry or simply replicating historical trends with a new educational model? Second, the return on investment is critical information for students making enrollment decisions—whether deciding between traditional higher education or bootcamps, or choosing a particular bootcamp. To make an educated decision, prospective students must understand to what extent bootcamps are successful in placing graduates in stable, high-paying jobs in the tech industry. Concerns that the costs may significantly outweigh the benefits are significant for all potential students, but particularly relevant for historically disadvantaged or low-income populations seeking an alternative path to upward mobility. Data on completion and job placement rates are critical for informed decision-making.
Despite the promise of the bootcamp model, currently there are inadequate data available to assess their ability to deliver on the promise of a better future—or a job in tech. We must invest in more independent research on this educational sector to better understand the populations bootcamps are targeting and serving and their return on investment for students. Until then, we will not know if (and which) bootcamps are providing opportunities for individuals who otherwise would not be part of the technology labor force, to what extent they provide opportunities to enter the tech workforce, or whether bootcamps replicate existing gaps in opportunity.
RTI International is a nonprofit research institute headquartered in Research Triangle Park, N.C. This piece references the report,“Alternative and independent: The universe of technology-related ‘bootcamps,’”published by RTI Press in February 2019.
Author Perspective: Analyst