As technology businesses grow in cities like Charleston, code schools have boomed with them, leaving little doubt that there’s a market for companies offering a crash course in programming.
But as for-profit boot camps spread and their enrollment swells, it’s less certain what that market looks like — who’s drawn to the classes and how they fare after graduating.
Two College of Charleston professors plan to probe those questions over the next two years with colleagues at a California think tank, embarking on one of the first studies of the code school business and how it compares to a traditional, four-year computer science education.
The boot camp model has exploded in recent years as a way to fill labor shortages in the technology sector and give people without a programming background enough of a crash course to land a job. In the Lowcountry alone, three code schools now compete for students, a concept that didn’t exist here even five years ago.
Nationwide, more than 10,000 people enrolled last year in one of the programs, which typically last a few months, according to a survey conducted by Course Report, a firm that tracks the industry. They paid, on average, more than $11,000.
And the federal government has begun to warm to the concept, saying earlier this month that it would let students use Pell Grants and other kinds of federal financial aid at a handful boot camps. Each of the eight schools in the pilot program is partnering with an accredited university.
That raises questions about who’s being drawn to the programs and how they’re being recruited, said Quinn Burke, an education professor working on the study. It also raises questions about what sorts of companies tend to hire them and how well boot camp students fare in the job market in the months after they graduate — and in the years that follow, as companies’ needs evolve.
But so far, those questions have gone mostly unaddressed. Burke and computer science professor Jim Bowring plan to conduct a series of national focus groups asking students and their would-be employers what they make of boot camps and traditional college programs. They also plan to follow a few students here and in California to see what they learn and how they land.
“We’re trying to find out the facts of the landscape,” Bowring said. “What, in fact, is true? What do people say about these expertise that these students get in each of these venues, and how do employers rate those?”
The inquiry also gets at a more fundamental question in tech education, said Lou Ann Lyon, senior research associate at ETR: What do educators hope to accomplish?
More than most fields, the emphasis in computer science programs is generally on training students for jobs, Lyon said. Thank the tech sector’s fast growth and the relative dearth of skilled workers for that.
But an education that’s laser-focused on helping graduates land specific jobs risks valuing short-term success over long-term stability, Lyon said. Teaching students a narrow set of skills, the argument goes, might be enough to get in the door, but in the always-evolving world of tech, it might eventually put workers at a disadvantage as methods and languages change. The research aims to address that concern.
“I was interested in looking at what kind of learning that happens when people are preparing for tech jobs,” said Lyon, herself a former software engineer. “Does it give you enough of a conceptual understanding or foundational understanding that then you can pick it up on your own?”
The work could inform understanding of where code schools fit into tech education and what value four years of college classes hold compared to a much quicker alternative. But Burke said the study’s not aimed at deciding which is better, but what advantages each has and how they could influence each other.
At the Charleston Digital Corridor, which offers classes through its CODEcamp program, director Ernest Andrade said there’s no need to pit four-year degrees against coding boot camps. Industry can benefit from schools that are quicker to adapt, and code schools can fill companies’ needs quickly. But rather than replace a traditional education, their courses can work to augment them instead, he said.
“One of the things we’re trying to do is more a systematic evaluation of, What are these camps offering? What are university programs offering? And where is there overlap?” Burke said. “It’s not an either/or scenario.”
Reach Thad Moore at 843-937-5703 or on Twitter @thadmoore.