Coding bootcamps and other alternative credentialing programs have boomed in popularity since arriving in the higher ed space, largely on the promise of a more cost-effective and efficient path to a career. With that rapid ascent, particularly as various fields have taken their graduates' credentials increasingly seriously, has come questions of oversight and accreditation.
At the end of the day, who guarantees quality and outcomes? And should these programs be eligible for federal aid? The U.S. Department of Education recently took the first step in answering those questions with the announcement of its Educational Quality Through Innovation Partnerships (EQUIP) program, a pilot that will provide Title IV funding to partnerships between higher ed institutions and nontraditional programs.
The Flatiron School is among these programs, and like many, it boasts a 99% job placement rate — though it sets itself apart with an independent audit of those numbers verified by a CPA. We recently caught up with Flatiron Founder and President Adam Enbar to discuss the implications of EQUIP, the school's job placement guarantee, and concerns that the space could become not unlike the many troubled for-profit institutions dotting the higher ed landscape.
EDUCATION DIVE: Flatiron recently announced a program that guarantees job placement. What's the key to your 99% job placement rate, and what are traditional higher ed institutions missing as far as having that success?
ADAM ENBAR: That's a very complex question. The first thing there is that the reality is that, for better or worse, institutions of higher education are not set up as vocational training schools. Whether or not you believe this is right or wrong, they do a lot more — or purport to do a lot more — than just prepare you for a job. They make you a better citizen. They teach you critical thinking skills. They socialize you.
Now again, people can argue all day whether that's worth the cost and whether they're actually successful in doing that, and some are more successful than others, but I think we can all agree that what our system of higher education is designed to do is be a lot more than job training. I wouldn't make an apples-to-apples comparison and say, 'Oh, OK. Flatiron School is great. Just go to Flatiron School instead of college.' Flatiron School just does that one thing. Colleges do a lot of other things. Again, without making judgments as to whether those other things are worth the money or not.
Two, I think we benefit from the fact that — and this is kind of what leads into this interesting new idea from the White House — because we're not accredited, because we're not subject to Title IV, the con is obviously that we don't get access to federal student aid. But the pro there is that we can move really fast. So a traditional institution of higher education has to get its curricula approved and its programs approved, and there’s process there — and for good reason. The government's spending a lot of money and they want to make sure that it's going toward things that are done the right way, and that's why accrediting agencies exist. The problem is that, when you operate in a world in which technology changes so quickly, we have to be able to iterate on our curriculum on a weekly basis.
A perfect example is that, about a year ago, Apple announced Swift, a whole new programming language. All iOS apps used to be written in Objective-C, and going forward, they're gonna be using Swift, this whole new language. We were able to change our curriculum to Swift within months. A college would take years to do that. I still don't think there's a college today teaching modern Web development and iOS and that kind of stuff. So we just operate much faster and we're much more deliberate about, 'Here's the one piece of value we're adding: We're training you for a job.' Not to do critical thinking. You'll pick that up, obviously, from the nature of learning how to code.
The promise we're making is we're going to train you for a job, and that's what we're going to do. And I think the idea for this new program that the federal government is putting together is can we encourage schools like Flatiron to partner with traditional universities so students can have access to the best of both worlds — all of the benefits of having a traditional higher education or liberal arts education, but also increase access to this incredibly high outcomes-oriented education that's being brought about from nontraditional providers like Flatiron.
A similar partnership along those lines that has been highlighted in the last week is one between Lynn University and General Assembly. With the announcement this week about that pilot from the Ed Department, how soon do you think they might open federal aid to alternative programs by themselves?
ENBAR: I think that's the whole point. The partnership with General Assembly and Lynn University, or with any university and a nontraditional provider right now, ultimately operates under Title IV guidelines, which state that a school can't outsource more than 50% of its curriculum or operations or administration in any given program to another provider. We can go out and partner with a local college right now, but the extent of that partnership would have to be, 'OK, the person is doing at least 50% of their studies through that college and then also taking a Flatiron course and getting some credit for it.' So you might think about somebody going to NYU and doing a 'semester abroad' at Flatiron School and getting school credit, and that makes up 20% of their credits, and that's fine. And that's what exists today.
The purpose of this pilot is specifically to waive that and to say that a school can enroll a student and outsource 100% of the training to a nontraditional provider. So NYU or whatever university could say, 'OK, we're going to enroll this student and partner with Flatiron School, and we're essentially going to enroll them into this Flatiron School program. Then we're going to use federal aid to do it, and they're just going to compensate the Flatiron School program and get a job, but we're going to administer that and oversee that because we're already plugged into this network of quality assurance and accreditation.'
One potential concern, recently highlighted by Bloc’s COO in a post on LinkedIn, is that accreditation and access to federal aid puts coding bootcamps and academies precariously close to becoming what the current for-profit higher ed model has been scrutinized for. What should alternative credentialing programs do to distance themselves from or alleviate those concerns?
ENBAR: On the outside, that is a totally reasonable concern. I was at the meetings at the White House where these programs were designed, along with the founders of other bootcamps and the heads of universities and leaders of accreditation bodies. So in putting together this program, of course, that was one of the main concerns. If you actually dig deep into what this program really is and how to even become part of the experiment, I think the administration has been incredibly smart about ensuring that doesn’t happen — probably largely because they realize, 'Alright, we don't wanna get burned like we did with for-profit education.'
One, this is just a pilot. It's just an experiment to see how it works. So they're not opening the floodgate, they're going to solicit interest from some universities and some bootcamps and award it to some. And they'll see and monitor how it works over the next couple years before deciding, 'Do we want to open the floodgates or not?' If that concern comes to fruition, they just won't continue it.
Two, if you look at how the program's designed, there are actually more rigorous standards for this than what exists today for universities. In order for us to participate in this program, a university first has to express interest in running it and express how they want to run it and get approved. The university has to work with existing accrediting bodies to approve the curriculum and the pedagogy and the methodology, so we're still leveraging all of the experience of the existing accrediting agencies. And then on top of that, anyone who wants to participate in this experiment has to propose an additional way for measuring quality and outcomes.
And what that way is could be anything, but that is one of the key things that the federal government will be looking for in approving the experiments: Beyond being approved by accreditors, and beyond being under the auspices of a university and directly accountable to the university, what else will you do to ensure outcomes and measure and evaluate how a program’s working?
There are a lot of ideas around that, but it will probably end up with a combination of non-profit industry trade organizations that act as independent reviewers and independent audits. Like I said, we're still the only school that has done this, but we give all of our data to a CPA and they don't just make kind of broad graduation or job placement claims. We release, in full detail, the number of students enrolled; of the students enrolled, the number who graduated; of the number who graduated, the number in jobs; of the number in jobs, what fields they're in; and the breakdown of salary ranges, by quintile, for that number.
We're not required to do this, but we subject ourselves to that transparency and that scrutiny, and largely I think that's why we were part of this process in helping to shape this program, and I think that's what the expectation will be. Which, if you actually think about it, is significantly higher of a bar than anything that exists today for Title IV or anything else. I think the administration is very well aware of the risk, and I think that is probably the biggest thing that they're looking at: How are we going to make sure this is accountable for real quality outcomes? And again, my suggestion would be have independent auditors.
Do you think that concerns have been complicated by for-profits expressing interest in bootcamps or coding academies, though?
ENBAR: I think Apollo has already acquired a bootcamp. But again, if Apollo has the ability to operate a bootcamp that has independent auditors reviewing the data and can prove that they have 99% job placement or 90% job placement with some great starting salary, then fine. I'm highly skeptical of that. We released our audit report a year ago, and they still haven't done that. That's why I think the programs that the federal government will end up deciding to work with are going to be the ones that are going to be willing to submit themselves to that level of scrutiny, as they should be.
Will we eventually see in-house bootcamps as an extension of college or university programs the same way traditional higher ed adapted the online model pioneered by for-profits?
ENBAR: Absolutely. We are already working with some schools specifically to develop that in a variety of capacities — some in a very heavy-handed capacity, where we're going in and helping the school set up the entire infrastructure for a bootcamp, and some where we're just licensing our software and our curriculum. But again, I think one of the hard things about a four-year education is, by definition, you're waiting at least five years to know if it works. With a three-month program, you know very quickly, right?
And if we require every school that participates in this program to have an independent audit of how many students enrolled, how many graduated, what are the salaries, what are the jobs they're working at — all of that stuff — you can kind of put a stop to 'bad actors' very, very quickly.
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