Learn to code bootcamps are all the rage these days. Hundreds are cropping up across the world, and that number continues to grow. As these schools become popular among job seekers and students, government regulators are cracking down on programs to make sure they comply with state law.

Coding bootcamps are nine-to-12-week programs that cost upwards of $12,000 and promise students a high-paying job in the programming field.

Dev Bootcamp, one of the original learn to code camps, boasts over 450 graduates since February 2012. Eighty-five percent of the alumni are now employed, Dev Bootcamp’s Brandon Croke told me. Those numbers are rosy in comparison to the average American university, where just 27 percent of graduates have a job related to their major.

A handful of these schools call San Francisco home—Hack Reactor, Dev Bootcamp, General Assembly, and Hackbright Acadmemy, just to name a few. When California’s Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education (BPPE) discovered these institutions were offering courses without complying to state regulations, the BPPE sent cease and desist letters to the organizations, citing a $50,000 fine if they did not comply with California’s regulations. 

Canadian coding bootcamps have faced their own scrutiny from government regulators. Though code camp supporters claimed that officials were “stifling” innovation in business, the program in question relented, setting a precedent those in the United States should follow.

Avoid A Rush To Judgement 

The immediate reaction to any government oversight in the technology field is skepticism. However, with a rising number of coding bootcamps promising $90,000 a year jobs after a few short months of training, the potential for organizers to take advantage of the system grows—a potential that could prove detrimental for both students and honest coding camps.

Christina Valdivia, BPPE’s information officer, told me that the $50,000 fine would only be implemented if the schools failed to comply with state regulations. The letters were sent at the beginning of February, and most of the California coding camps have begun working toward compliance to avoid a fine.

To achieve compliance, institutions must pay a $5,000 application fee; provide a course catalog, enrollment agreement, and performance fact sheet publicly on their websites; and submit a few other minor documents included on the application. In this aspect, code schools are really not all that different from any other vocational school that teaches students skills for a particular field. Contrary to other reports, coding camps are not required to have a functioning fax machine on-site.

“Part of the reason they have to do these performance fact sheets is to make sure they’re telling the truth that their claims are accurate,” Valdiva said in an interview. “Whether it’s an auto repair school or cosmetic school, they have to complete the performance fact sheet.” 

Detractors claim that the amount of work it will take to continuously submit an updated the course catalog will prove challenging, as these code camps change curriculum regularly to fit the job market. But, Valdiva told me, they would only have to resubmit an application if the organization drastically changed course.

“If, for instance, the learn to code school plans on changing the curriculum to, let’s say, teach a completely different subject matter like auto repair, then, the new curriculum would have to be submitted for approval by the bureau,” she said.   

A Potential For Fraud

The majority of people who apply to code camps don’t get accepted. At Dev Bootcamp, classes are whittled down from 6,000 applicants to around 20 per cohort; and Hackbright Academy, the female-only program, accepts just five percent of applicants.

That leaves a huge amount of potential students on the table willing to pay thousands for a few months of programming practice.

Kathryn Exline, a Dev Bootcamp graduate who successfully landed a programming job at a food technology startup in Chicago, said that maintaining high-quality programs is important to future success of all coding camps.

“As more and more pop up, alumni and people running the organization are often in support of the regulation to make sure all bootcamps are having good experiences,” Exline told me. “We want to make sure someone doesn't ruin our reputation.”

Startup accelerators, another byproduct of the startup scene, have suffered from faulty programs in their own community, resulting in entrepreneurs getting left in the cold, various cases of fraud and scandal, and the over-ambitious creation of too many programs.  

Programmers themselves are skeptical of coding bootcamps. Dan Gailey, a self-proclaimed hacker, called code camps a scam, claiming the programs don’t teach adequate skills to become a full-fledged programmer and that the engineering interview helps developers fake their way through job applications.

There is a dearth of developers, management and recruiters commoditize them, they have a high churn rate, and they face even higher burnout. This situation creates a business that takes advantage of two markets. This will inevitably turn out lower quality individuals, while trying to maximize profits.

While this negative take was immediately rebuffed by graduates themselves, other programmers who have been through coding camps don’t find the experience valuable. 

As more programs become available, the actual educational payoff becomes watered down. In Australia, “The Fitzroy Academy Of Getting Shit Done” promises to turn you into an entrepreneur in just four weeks, and although you don’t need programming experience, part of the curriculum includes building an application. While the cost is just a measly $1,000—inexpensive compared to other programs discussed in this article—the claims are similar to the empowering promise of a well-paying job. 

It’s Not About The Money—Or Is It?

Like college, code camp tuition is a concern that turns away many potential students. Free or inexpensive online educational programs continue to crop up to help level the playing field, some of which offer coding classes of their own

Exline said that in the future, these bootcamps should be made available to a larger audience—not just those who can pay. 

“What I would like to see moving forward is bootcamps made somewhat more accessible than higher educational programs; there aren’t facilities for financial aid,” she told me. “If we’re going to have bootcamps a part of our ecosystem, we are going to have to address that aspect of it. How can we make this accessible for everyone?”

Government oversight could play a role in providing financial aid, similar to the structure of public colleges, vocational schools and universities. In addition to keeping postsecondary institutions honest, the BPPE provides a student tuition recovery fund to accredited schools. 

“If [a code camp] suddenly out of the blue shut down, there is recourse for the student to get tuition recovered,” Valdivia said. “When a school isn’t approved, the students don’t have access to those funds.”

As the number of learn to code programs increases, so does the number of graduates. Eventually, the market will become saturated, resulting in a decrease in the average rate of hiring and the average graduate’s salary. The scenario is undoubtedly far down the road, but one that would inevitably drive the cost of admission down as well. 

Some Research Required

It falls on the shoulders of students to do their due diligence when applying to coding programs. The government can provide as much oversight as possible, but ultimately, it’s the responsibility of students to figure out what’s right for them. 

There are a handful of resources for students to rate and read reviews of coding camps, though the forums are still relatively new. Thanks to social media, unsavory experiences are publicly called out. 

Regulation, while seemingly nefarious, aims to protect students. And that’s a creed any postsecondary institution should put above all else. 

“I think anyone can learn to code, but bootcamps aren’t the style for everyone,” Exline said. “For some people, more traditional higher ed will work, for some, learning on your own will work. But what I’ve been able to accomplish in the past year with Dev Bootcamp probably would have taken me three to five years.” 

Lead image courtesy HackNY on Flickr.