Are Coding Bootcamps Worth It?
- Coding bootcamps are worth it for students who need to learn a specific skill quickly.
- Employers generally regard these programs positively, but want more accountability.
- Bootcamps are not regionally or nationally accredited.
- A coding bootcamp does not replicate the depth or scope of a computer science degree.
What Is a Coding Bootcamp?
Coding bootcamps emerged over the last decade to fill a talent vacuum. Tech companies had more jobs than qualified applicants, and the number of college graduates with four-year degrees couldn't satisfy the industry's growing needs.
The premise of coding bootcamps is implicit in the name: learning to code in a condensed, rigorous format. Pioneers like Dev Bootcamp in San Francisco and The Iron Yard in Greenville, South Carolina, designed programs to make students job-ready in a matter of months rather than years.
[The] combination of speed and accessibility is attracting a growing population of upskillers competing for high-paying, high-tech jobs. Over 23,000 students graduated from code schools in 2019 alone.
Both programs, which had expanded to multiple campuses across the country, closed abruptly in 2017, and some experts predicted additional code school closures. Contrary to those expectations, however, the market has grown 10 times over since 2013, with over 200 bootcamps on the market today.
The industry's mini-shakeout in 2017 might have suggested bootcamps couldn't deliver on their core promise to students, but the format's combination of speed and accessibility is attracting a growing population of upskillers competing for high-paying, high-tech jobs.
What Are the Benefits of Coding Bootcamps?
So what is driving students to enroll in coding bootcamps? "There's an access issue for computer science at all levels of high school and throughout higher education," said Sheree Speakman, the CEO of the Council on Integrity in Results Reporting (CIRR). "While this is changing, implementation is not happening fast enough."
CIRR is a membership organization made up of code schools that voluntarily report student outcomes. Speaking to BestColleges about the value of coding bootcamps, Speakman explained, "The success of code schools is that a student can learn to code from code schools, regardless of whether or not they've been able to learn coding and computer science in traditional education systems."
The Pros and Cons of Coding Bootcamps
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For most students, the issue of access comes down to cost. A four-year computer science degree can be obscenely expensive, and many students — not just low-income ones — face a variety of obstacles when it comes to completing a college education.
Over the last three decades, the cost of tuition at public universities has more than tripled while middle-class wages have stagnated. Student loan debt has reached $1.6 trillion with no signs of slowing down. Given these economic realities, it's understandable why many students want alternatives to higher education that won't land them in serious debt.
Traditionally, however, students earning college degrees can rely on one thing that bootcamp students lack: access to federal financial aid. Coding bootcamps are not nationally or regionally accredited and so do not qualify for federal financial aid. Currently, the only way to receive federal financial aid for bootcamp-style classes is to apply for EQUIP, which covers only eight college-based programs.
“For students who want to innovate and build new digital tools for others, code schools are a direct route to learning and job placement.”
While code school students lack access to the same financial aid options as traditional college students, Speakman pointed to initiatives that attempt to leverage the coding bootcamp model to increase access, such as code schools with income-sharing agreements (ISAs) and workforce development partnerships.
Instead of requiring students to pay for tuition upfront, a typical ISA requires graduates to pay a percentage of their income to a code school only when it exceeds a certain minimum threshold. According to a Christensen Institute report, an increasing number of coding bootcamps use this model, which is intended to minimize risk and guarantee job placement.
Nonprofit workforce development programs also highlight some of the advantages of a coding bootcamp model and its potential to increase access for underserved populations. For example, the San Diego Workforce Partnership recently launched a front-end development program through its Workforce ISA Fund. In partnership with Google and other donors, the initiative aims to attract financially strapped students to high-demand tech jobs.
The Chicago Workforce Development Partnership is another example, providing tuition-free education in an 11-week bootcamp format to the city's underserved communities. The Chicago Codes program, co-sponsored by companies like Microsoft and Facebook, seeks to correct the unequal distribution of tech talent while also helping to fill the city's 3,000 job openings in tech.
"In essence, code schools provide true equity and access for students seeking to learn and be employed upon graduation," Speakman said.
Measuring access is difficult, however. Members of CIRR do not currently report on the economic or educational backgrounds of their students, so it remains unclear whether bootcamps solve some of the more intractable problems of education in the United States, such as opportunity gaps for low-income students.
How Much Do Coding Bootcamps Cost?
While bootcamps might increase access for many students who would otherwise not get a computer science education, it's also true that some code schools are more expensive than others.
The cost of a bootcamp can range from as low as $1,300 to as high as $30,000. The average bootcamp tuition was $13,579 in 2020, according to data collected by BestColleges from over 620 bootcamp programs offered by about 130 bootcamp providers.
Some nonprofit programs, such as Ada Development Academy, offer a tuition-free model based on donations and corporate partnerships. Several others, as already mentioned, may defer tuition payment based on income-sharing agreements, or they may receive payment based on referral fees from job placement.
Of course, whether any price point is worth it depends on the quality of instruction and measurable student outcomes. But considering the average cost of a four-year degree can range from $20,000 a year at a public institution to $43,000 a year at a private college, coding bootcamps may be a worthwhile bargain for students who want to break into the tech industry.
Will a Coding Bootcamp Get You a Job?
Access and affordability aren't the only factors driving enrollment in bootcamps. It's likely that many students are concerned with just one thing: Will they get a high-paying tech job?
According to CIRR,the average percentage of graduates employed in the field 180 days after graduation was around 78%, based on data from 29 coding bootcamps between July and December 2018.
CIRR does not include data on other factors that may contribute to employment, such as previous education or experience. The percentage employed also includes any type of employment in the field, such as full-time, part-time, apprenticeship, or short-term contract.
The typical student enrolled in a coding bootcamp already possesses a bachelor's degree and has six years of work experience, variables which may influence their employability. At the same time, the average student has never worked as a programmer.
As for salaries, CIRR data indicates that median salaries ranged from $55,000 to as high as $117,500 for almost 2,000 graduates reported on between July and December 2018. The average median salary for all bootcamps was just over $72,000, though an accurate measure isn't possible without knowing the salaries for each and every student. This is because class sizes vary and CIRR provides the median salary only for whole cohorts.
To put things in perspective, LinkedIn reports that the median entry-level salary for software engineers — one of the top occupations for bootcamp graduates — is $89,000 for professionals with 1-5 years of experience, based on over 31,000 survey responses. For engineers with less than a year of experience, that number drops to around $81,000 a year, based on roughly 18,000 survey responses.
How Are Coding Bootcamps Perceived by Employers?
Beyond the numbers, perception by employers is also a huge factor in assessing the value of coding bootcamps. Companies like Microsoft, for example, are seeing increasing numbers of applicants with code school credentials.
"As the availability of bootcamps and other nontraditional reskilling resources has increased, we're seeing more and more applicants note these experiences on their applications," said Dan Ayoub, general manager for Microsoft Education.
Ayoub spoke to BestColleges about the way hiring managers perceive bootcamps compared to a traditional computer science education. "For people who think they may be interested in a field like coding, a bootcamp is a great way to explore it without investing the time and resources a traditional four-year degree requires," he said.
When asked how to assess the quality or reputation of coding bootcamps, Ayoub offered some practical advice: "I recommend reaching out to the bootcamps in your area and seeing if you can sit in on one before you sign up, talk[ing] to people who have completed the bootcamp, and research[ing] ratings and reviews online."
“A bootcamp is not only a great way to learn the skillset of coding, but also to network and see what a career in coding could look like based on an individual’s areas of interest.”
Many employers share Ayoub's positive impression of coding bootcamps. A 2017 survey by Indeed assessed the value of coding bootcamps by asking employers whether graduates are "just as prepared and likely to be high performers" as professionals with computer science degrees. A total of 72% said yes, compared to 17% who said these candidates are "not as prepared or likely to be higher performers."
According to the same Indeed survey, while most employers have a favorable opinion of coding bootcamps, 98% want more oversight. Though organizations like CIRR have stepped in to provide more transparency and standardized reporting, bootcamps not affiliated with universities are not accredited or regulated in the same way as traditional schools.
However, the success of the coding bootcamp model is remarkable enough that universities are beginning to take notice. An increasing number of four-year schools — among them, the University of Washington, Northwestern University, and the University of Minnesota — now offer bootcamps of their own.
So Is a Coding Bootcamp Worth It?
The short answer? It depends. When asked about the future of computer science education, Ayoub shared a thought that is instructive for assessing the value of coding bootcamps: "I think the future is about a few things: It's about expanding access for students, but also new learners at different stages in their careers."
Colleges and universities are not an ideal choice for everyone, particularly for nontraditional learners who don't have the time or money to earn a four-year degree. Coding bootcamps are for professionals who may want to switch careers, retrain, or upskill. The quick but immersive nature of these programs allows them to get started in the industry or propel their careers in a new direction.
However, bootcamps do not replicate the depth and scope of a four-year computer science degree, and many employers think the industry needs more accountability. For this reason, comparing a coding bootcamp to a four-year education is like comparing apples and oranges. Ultimately, they serve different purposes and different student populations, while also catering to the diverse needs of a growing industry.