At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic — when infections were soaring and hospital beds were scarce — Sean Sarreal managed a now-defunct restaurant in Pasadena.
Dining out was a health hazard, and to reduce spread of the coronavirus, most restaurants in L.A. County were restricted to takeout or had customers eat alfresco. Many of these businesses shuttered immediately, others struggled to stay afloat.
“My position was pretty secure,” Sarreal said. “What really hit me was when I had to let a lot of people go.”
After being forced to lay off his coworkers during a global health crisis, he had to figure out a way to keep the restaurant running with a skeleton crew. Sarreal was constantly stressed about being short on staff. If one of them fell sick, it was up to him to find coverage. He worked long hours and rarely had days off. Holidays and weekends were meaningless. By mid-2020, he had burned out.
Exhausted, Sarreal began to flirt with the possibility of a different career. But the Cal State Northridge graduate didn’t want to have to start from scratch: It’d taken him nearly a decade to earn a bachelor’s degree in business administration, “and I was kind of over it,” he said.
While scrolling through Instagram, Sarreal came across several ads for coding boot camps. He’d always been interested in computers, and because he was part of the U.S. Air Force Reserve, he had the option of using the GI Bill to pay for his education. He searched for a boot camp that accepted this benefit and landed on Coding Dojo, a private, for-profit boot camp founded in 2012.
Sarreal signed up for a full-time, 16-week program. Sometimes he spent up to 14 hours a day learning how to code, including class time and independent study — but he didn’t mind.
“Unlike school, where I felt like I was being forced to study this or memorize that, I enjoyed it,” he said. “I kept digging into it, asking questions. I really wanted to learn.”
Today, Sarreal works from home as a front-end developer, typically no more than eight hours a day. Since completing the boot camp, he has more time for hobbies, travel, family and friends. He also earns approximately $30,000 more than he used to per year.
A recent history of coding demand
Coding boot camps have been around for over a decade, but, in recent years, business has boomed. Alongside for-profit companies like Coding Dojo and its many competitors, prospective students across the U.S. can now choose from a host of programs tied to traditional higher ed institutions. Many aggressively advertise on social media:
In Southern California, several public and private schools have established non-degree coding boot camps, often as part of their continuing education or extension programs. This includes Cal State Long Beach, Caltech, UC Irvine, UCLA and El Camino College. All of these programs promise something similar: In less than a year, students will have the skills to land a great-paying job in an ever-growing field.
Some of these boot camps posit themselves as a faster, cheaper alternative to college.
“If you are someone who knows for certain that you want to be a software engineer, then you've probably considered a [computer science] degree,” says one Nucamp Bootcamp Instagram ad. “It's a well rounded degree. But four years of study, give or take, is a lot of time. And tens of thousands of dollars is a lot of money.”
A blog post for Columbia University’s boot camp likewise tells prospective students that “short, intensive courses impart the functional skills [they] need to land a job within a few short months, rather than several years.”
“For all of the emphasis on the importance of a college degree,” adds another university blog post, “a conventional four-year educational route is not always necessary for success in the software development world.”
Coding boot camps vary in content, delivery, and length. They also range in cost, starting at a few hundred dollars for introductory courses to tens of thousands for a complete program. Much like a traditional college education, students cover the cost any way they can — out-of-pocket, through scholarships, with installment plans, with the GI Bill, and by taking out loans. But unlike higher ed institutions, only a few boot camps have been nationally accredited.
To find a quality program, prospective students — whether they’re career switchers or young people trying to figure out what to do after high school — often navigate a sea of options on their own. And not every coding boot camp story has a happy ending.
'We don’t get paid until you do'
In September 2019 — just a year after graduating high school — Jonathan Stickrod signed up to study computer science at Rogue Community College in Oregon. He worked at a car wash at the time to make ends meet.
As legal documents would later explain, a few months into college, Stickrod saw a YouTube ad for Lambda, a private, for-profit coding boot camp based in San Francisco. It said he could become a web developer from home in only six to 12 months. It also said he wouldn’t have to pay for the boot camp until he got hired. Lambda’s website also advertised an 85.9% job placement rate for those who completed the program. It also told prospective students: “We don’t get paid until you do, so we’re in this together, from your first day of class to your first day on the job.”
Stickrod withdrew from college and enrolled in Lambda’s web development program.
While Lambda charged $30,000 for tuition, it offered an alternative: an Income Share Agreement (ISA), which allows a student to pay tuition retroactively. In Lambda’s case, once a student obtained a job with at least a $50,000 salary, they’d pay Lambda 17% of that salary for two years, capped at $30,000. Stickrod chose the ISA.
After enrolling, Stickrod started learning some new information about his school.
A February 2020 exposé in New York Magazine pointed to a number of problems at Lambda. First, that Lambda was selling its income sharing agreement to investors, profiting from its students’ debt long before they found employment. Second, that while it claimed “86% of Lambda School graduates are hired within 6 months and make over $50k a year,” Lambda executives told investors the number was closer to half. Another exposé, from The Verge, suggested curriculum and instruction that didn't live up to what the school promised.
There was yet another wrinkle. In March 2019, California’s Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education (BPPE) found that Lambda was operating without state approval. It ordered the school to cease operations, stop recruiting or enrolling students, pay a $75,000 fine and submit a closure plan.
Instead, Lambda continued to enroll students, including Stickrod.
In 2021, Stickrod withdrew from the boot camp and filed an arbitration claim against Lambda. Stickrod’s attorneys included members of the National Student Legal Defense Network. In their demand for arbitration, attorneys noted that “One statement on its website provided that ‘Lambda’s instructional staff hail from the top companies and universities in the world,’ and listed Apple, Google, Stanford, and NASA as examples.” The attorneys added:
In fact, the curriculum — which was constantly in flux — was made up largely of publicly available online materials. The instructors had little knowledge of the curriculum, struggled to keep up with the frequent changes, and were often not available to answer questions . . . The instructors also did not hail from the advertised top companies and universities.
Lambda responded to the demand for arbitration by saying that it "generally denies each and every allegation of the Demand."
In July 2022, Stickrod and two other former Lambda students reached individual settlements with the company. Stickrod declined comment to LAist.
Many other students have filed arbitration claims against Lambda, too.
The National Student Legal Defense Network is also representing Emily Bruner, a single mom and former student, in a lawsuit against the company. Court documents state that when she interviewed for positions, employers said she didn’t have the technical skills for the job, and that her education hadn’t prepared her.
Lambda paid a fine to the BPPE (which, BPPE noted, does “not constitute an admission of the violation charged”) and changed its name to Bloom Institute of Technology, or BloomTech. On its website, the company advertises a 90% job placement rate and a $27,500+ median salary increase for graduates. It also offers a “deferred tuition option,” a loan with a 12.5% interest rate that students don’t have to pay back until they land a job that pays at least $50,000 a year.
Coding academies that provide low-quality programs “can cause extensive harm to students, beyond just the time and money that's wasted,” said Alex Elson, vice president for policy and co-founder of the National Student Legal Defense Network. He said he’s met multiple students who “were lured out of community colleges by this crisp, fancy advertising and these lofty promises of high-paying jobs.”
“And when that doesn't pan out, at the end of the day, you don't just pick right back up,” he added. “The lack of regulation and oversight is definitely an issue ... which is why it's so important for students to be extra vigilant.”
We asked the National Student Legal Defense Network’s Alex Elson about how prospective coding students can protect themselves.
INTERROGATE JOB PLACEMENT NUMBERS
“If they're extremely high, ask follow up questions. Oftentimes, schools will say they have a 95% placement rate, but that only includes a very small selection of students who even graduate. What you really want to know is: How many students enrolled in the first place? And how many of those received jobs?”
LOOK OUT FOR ARBITRATION CLAUSES
"These provisions are often buried in enrollment or financial paperwork and force students seeking to vindicate their rights to do so outside of court and individually, as opposed to a class action lawsuit. If a boot camp sends you paperwork electronically, do a CTRL+ F search for the word ‘arbitration.’ And even if you don't find it, follow up. Ask the school: ‘Is there an arbitration clause that you're going to ask me to sign?’ If there is one, maybe just don't attend the school because arbitration clauses are often red flags. But if you really have your heart set on it, there will often be language in these arbitration clauses that allow you to opt out.”
WEIGH YOUR OPTIONS
“Run Google searches about any cases or arbitrations that have been filed against the school. Search reviews online, not just from other students, but from former faculty members... And you can do the same thing with price comparisons. Look around and see what's out there. Let's say you find a boot camp with a $25,000 deferred payment plan, whereas your local community college offers the same academic program for around $5,000, that's also something to pay attention to.”
Industry-driven curriculum vs. long-term stability
Not all coding boot camps guarantee job placement. Even so, aligning curricula with the job market is a defining feature of the industry.
“My job is to make sure [students] get a job,” said Betty Sedor, director of community education at El Camino College. Motivated by unemployment rates during the pandemic, she established a partnership between her campus and Promineo Tech, a Phoenix-based company that supplies low-cost coding boot camps in colleges across the country.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, she noted, projects that jobs for web developers will grow by 30% between 2021 and 2030. Sedor wants her students to be part of this growing labor market, but she was initially taken aback by some boot camps’ price tags.
“I thought I wouldn't be able to find a partner that I could afford,” she said. “I kind of couldn't believe what was being charged at other locations. To me, that's an equity issue.”
El Camino College’s boot camp charges just over $7,000 for students who want to take both front- and back-end software development programs, about half the global average.
Nick Suwyn, founder of Promineo Tech, said the company assembled an advisory board to flesh out its first curriculum. To keep its coursework up-to-date, it relies on conversations with its instructors (who work as software developers), as well as potential employers.
In addition to equipping students with essential technical skills, some boot camps also make it a point to simulate real-world work environments. Often, this involves opportunities to solve problems as a team.
“Contrary to belief, coding is not an isolated position,” said Jessi Chartier, chief learning officer at Coding Dojo. “It's not something where you're sitting in a basement, you know, with Doritos and Mountain Dew ... It's much more community-based.”
Landing a job is the end goal of all coding boot camps — and a key aspect of how they’re rated by third-party platforms like Course Report, which publishes a list of the world’s “best coding bootcamps.” As a result, most programs offer hefty career services, including résumé help, curated job listings, career fairs, 1:1 career coaching and mock interviews.
MIT’s women-only coding program takes it a step further: There, career prep also entails coursework in combating imposter syndrome; building confidence and being assertive; communicating technical concepts to non-technical colleagues; and salary negotiation.
Coding boot camps are popular among people who’ve long been in the labor market, often overworked, underpaid and looking for a change. But some prospective students are recent high school graduates, faced with the choice of pursuing higher education or investing in a boot camp — this in a country that’s riddled with student debt.
“There is a time and a place for a two- or four-year degree education,” said Chartier of Coding Dojo, which has credit-sharing agreements with City University of Seattle and Northeastern University. “However, if you want to get into the field quickly, ... boot camps are definitely the way to go. We have heard from employers time and time again that they've hired computer science graduates to be their coders, and they do not have enough coding experience.” A traditional college degree, she added, provides “a great liberal arts education ... but when it comes to the actual practical skill set of software development, they tend to fall short.”
Aram Hammoudeh, senior educator at ThriveDX, which supplies the coding boot camp at Cal State Long Beach, said, “A four-year degree is never a bad thing to have.” But, he added, “a lot of the people that come through our program are career changers. They're coming from food and beverage, retail, other tech industries, customer support — all different walks of life. And this program takes a drastically shorter amount of time. It’s geared for people who exist in the real world.”
Equity in coding
Black and Latino college students are underrepresented among STEM degree recipients. And though women now comprise the majority of students enrolled in colleges and universities, they earn only about 20% of computer science degrees. STEM workers have higher median earnings and lower unemployment rates than non-STEM workers. Boot camps, then, can help these students unlock important career opportunities.
But what are the possible ramifications of encouraging underrepresented students to earn boot camp certificates instead of college degrees?
Matthieu Delac is the CEO and lead instructor at SheCodes, a company that provides coding workshops for women and boasts more than 138,000 students in 191 countries. At a recent recruitment session, a prospective student asked him: “Do you think it's necessary to have a degree?”
“I don't think so,” said Delac, who has a master’s degree in computer science. “If I had to do it again, I wouldn't do it myself.”
There’s not enough data on boot camp outcomes to know what’s the best path forward.
Other boot camps likewise assure prospective students that their programs will not only help them achieve their immediate career goals, but also prepare them to grow within the tech industry.
“Taking an off-the-beaten-track path into software development won’t consign you to the low-paid, low-skilled jobs in the field,” says a blog post at Columbia.
“Employers need staff, and they know it. That knowledge has driven them to look beyond traditional requirements in their quest for talented coders,” it adds. “While a traditional four-year degree can be helpful for building skills, opening doors, and getting an interview, it is no longer necessary and probably won’t be making a comeback anytime soon.”
Higher education promises a lot of things: jobs, better pay, fantastic opportunities, lifelong success. But trying to make it all happen is not straightforward. Check out LAist's College Guide, which dives into whether a degree program is right for you; how to pay for classes; and what school to choose (with more information on for-profit schools, too).
You can also check out LAist's all-purpose guide to certificates and bootcamps.
How to navigate the options
Rice University's department of computer science, on the other hand, warns that computer programming is a "practical, yet narrow, aspect of computer science."
“Many programmers and software developers can only implement the programs that other computer scientists conceive of, limiting how much they can drive innovation in their field,” it says on its website:
Advanced computer scientists have the foundational knowledge that allows them to apply their skills (including programming) to almost anything . . . Compare the differences between a Line Cook and a Michelin-Star Chef in a restaurant: a Line Cook can follow a recipe and execute it well, but the Chef will create new recipes, pioneer new techniques, and continue to refine and perfect those recipes over time.
Michelle Van Noy, director at Rutgers University’s Education and Employment Research Center, researches quality in non-degree credentials, as well as higher education-labor market alignment.
When curriculum is driven by industry demand, she said, “the promise is that the pathway toward a good job will be much clearer for students,” which could also help the national economy by ensuring that there’s a skilled workforce.
But “there's a bit of a balance to consider between students’ long-term educational needs and pathways and the specific needs of an employer . . . If a curriculum is too tightly linked to immediate employer needs, it could make it harder for them to move on to other jobs.”
As for whether students should forgo college degrees, Van Noy noted that “certain states and certain employers have moved to eliminate degrees as hiring requirements. And so that is a signal that, in some places, it is moving in this direction.”
“But it's an open question,” she said. “There’s not enough data on boot camp outcomes to know what’s the best path forward.”
And if large numbers of women and people of color opt to forgo degrees to enroll in boot camps that do not lead to good outcomes, she added, “it certainly would be really problematic.”
Instead of propping degrees against boot camps, Van Noy wonders if the latter could serve as a stepping stone.
El Camino College’s Sedor has the same hope. The coding boot camp can help students “get their feet wet,” she said, and land a good job quickly. Then, maybe some students will decide “to go all the way.”
Current and former students suggest you ask the following:
- Who is this program for? (Is it designed for high school graduates or career changers? How challenging would it be for someone with no experience?)
- What is the average class size?
- Do you offer sample or low-cost introductory courses so I can get to know how your program works before making a commitment?
- Do you have an entrance exam?
- How much does it cost?
- Do you have a payment plan? If so, is it interest free?
- What scholarships are available? (Some coding boot camps offer scholarships for women, or for active military members and veterans.)
- What will I learn? (Does this boot camp teach up-to-date, widely used technologies? Is this a full stack program, covering front-end and back-end development?)
- What background and expertise do the instructors bring to class?
- How are students taught? (Is all instruction done online? If so, is it live or pre-recorded?)
- How many hours a week will I need to dedicate to the program?
- Do you offer tutoring/support for struggling students?
- Will I be part of a tightly-knit cohort?
- How does your program simulate a professional work environment?
- Will this program enable me to build a professional portfolio?
- Will this program give me a chance to work on projects and get hands-on experience?
- What kind of career services do you provide (résumé review, LinkedIn setup, mock interviews, job matching, introductions to recruiters, etc.)? Will these be available after I complete the program? If so, for how long?
- Do you offer mentoring?
On a coder’s high
Notwithstanding concerns about long-term outcomes, coding boot camps have been a godsend for some students.
Kristina Macias, for instance, earned a degree in geography at Cal State Long Beach before going on to complete the front-end coding boot camp at El Camino College. Now she’s working on completing the back-end program and is employed full-time as a mentor for beginners.
Macias paid for the boot camp in cash, but in installments. She said it opened up a “whole world of what you can do in software” — it’s also helped her discover that she deeply enjoys mentoring the students.
“I really love seeing the 'aha' moment when they overcome a challenge and get that sort of confidence in their code,” she said.
Macias loves watching “30 students solve the same problem in a different way” and sees a future for herself in tech education. She’s also come a long way in her own craft. “What was daunting to me two years ago is now kind of a thrill,” she said.
Brandon Sandoval was in his early 20s when he began to look into boot camps. He had a high school diploma and was eager to move forward with his life, but the traditional college track didn’t appeal to him. He researched several programs before taking out a loan for the boot camp at Cal State Long Beach. He knew nothing about coding when he started his search, he said, but the recruiters there made him feel secure and confident.
Sandoval is now more than halfway through the coding boot camp, and it remains challenging.
“It's something that you have to constantly be studying and grinding at,” he said. “And there's times when I want to pull my hair out.”
His advice for prospective boot camp students is simple: “Prepare yourself mentally.”
“It's going to strain you,” he said, “but once you're ready for that challenge, I would say just go for it. Because it is fun, and you will fall in love quick.”
As he’s made his way through, Sandoval’s become enthralled by cybersecurity and learning how to reverse engineer viruses. He also appreciates that the program is getting him ready to look for a job, down to mock interviews to what he should wear — things he would’ve liked to learn in high school. He’s had professors who’ve worked at Amazon, Microsoft and Apple, and, for the first time in a while, he’s excited about his future.
This story was produced as part of the Higher Education Media Fellowship. The fellowship supports new reporting into issues related to post-secondary career and technical education. It is administered by the Institute for Citizens & Scholars and funded by the ECMC foundation.
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