When universities slap their names on for-profit coding boot camps

It seemed like a match made in heaven.

Dominican University of California needed something fresh. The college wanted to offer students a hands-on learning experience in a lucrative tech field blooming in the Bay Area. Make School, a San Francisco-based gaming company turned for-profit educational institution, was already offering a short-term tech boot camp, designed to meet that same goal.

Together, they envisioned a set-up through which Dominican students could take computer science classes and earn a minor, and Make School students could take a few classes from Dominican faculty and earn a bachelor’s in applied computer science in only two years.

The partnership, established in 2018, would be the first of its kind. Though it had special approval from Dominican’s accreditor, Make School’s program received little oversight or regulation. No one was watching out for warning signs, financial or otherwise, of issues at Make School.

When Make School suddenly closed in 2021, Dominican leaders were in uncharted territory, left to figure out how to help 167 students continue their education, a spokesperson said. The majority left the program without any credential to show for their time and effort.

Nicola Pitchford, Dominican’s vice president for academic affairs at the time and now its president, said the university did everything they could to help the students, but acknowledged it was “a really lumpy ride.”

“There’s not yet a regulatory framework that provides clear guidance and boundaries for institutions trying to do this,” Pitchford said. “We would have been very grateful for not having to pioneer quite so much.”

“What you have is trusted brand-name schools, from community colleges to state universities, knowing that they have these valuable brands, and literally renting them out to for-profit companies.”

Ben Kaufman, director of research and investigations at the Student Borrower Protection Center

Make School’s disastrous downfall, as documented by a Student Borrower Protection Center report provided to The Hechinger Report, should sound alarm bells about partnerships like this, advocates for students warn.

When colleges and boot camps team up, the colleges typically just put their name on the programs while the boot camp companies recruit students, develop curricula and teach classes. Such arrangements are quietly proliferating with few, if any, quality controls or assurances in place to protect students. At least 75 such partnerships exist between colleges and three of the country’s top boot camp provider companies: edX, ThriveDX and Fullstack Academy.

When students enroll in a traditional college, they know they are attending an institution that has met certain standards set by the federal and state governments and accrediting agencies. If their education doesn’t meet those standards, or if their school lies to them or closes, they are entitled to certain protections, including, in some cases, debt cancelation. There is quality oversight and transparency about student outcomes.

When students enroll in a tech boot camp, however — even if it has the name of a college pasted all over it — they have none of those assurances. This kind of program, which typically takes two years or less to complete and does not offer academic credit, is unregulated and is often marketed as an alternative to traditional colleges and an accelerated pathway to high-paying tech jobs.

No one collects any information on how many former boot camp students end up with the jobs they trained for or whether the many students who take out private loans to pay for these programs are able to make their payments.

For the colleges and the boot camp providers, however, partnering is a win-win. The programs grow but remain unregulated while bearing the crests of the accredited and respected colleges and universities. The colleges can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars without having to do much work, according to reviews of the contracts obtained through public records requests.

“What you have is trusted brand-name schools, from community colleges to state universities, knowing that they have these valuable brands, and literally renting them out to for-profit companies,” said Ben Kaufman, director of research and investigations at the Student Borrower Protection Center. “The students will take on the debt because they trust the school, then go to a program that is usually very superficial.”

The rise and fall of Make School

After starting in 2012 and pivoting from gaming to education in 2014, Make School operated for years as an unlicensed educational institution.

It received a citation in 2018 from California’s Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education for operating without approval. Nevertheless, later that year, it joined forces with Dominican, a nonprofit college in San Rafael, California. A spokesperson from Dominican said that, when they signed the contract, college leaders were unaware that Make School was operating as an unapproved educational institution.

The partnership was approved by Dominican’s accreditor, Western Association of Schools and Colleges Senior College and University Commission, or WSCUC, through a special set-up that allowed Dominican to essentially sponsor Make School and help it be fast-tracked toward independent accreditation. This set-up allowed Make School students to access federal aid dollars.

Colleges that receive federal funding must uphold certain standards of “program integrity,” including accurate representations of the nature of their educational programs, financial charges and graduates’ employability.

Colleges typically receive about 20 percent of partner boot camp revenue

Dominican’s accreditor did not review Make School’s curriculum. WSCUC collected some financial information from Make School, but only at the onset of the partnership to make sure that Dominican would be able to sustain it, according to Jamienne Studley, president of WSCUC. Make School didn’t have to disclose any ongoing information about its financials to the federal government or the accreditor.

As for employability, the Student Borrower Protection Center report says that Make School made what appear to be “misrepresentations” about the employability of its graduates, as well as about the price and academic nature of its program.

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The SBPC now says that Dominican is liable for misrepresentations made by Make School and that the partnership violated required standards of “program integrity.” That contention is “vigorously disputed” by Dominican, according to a statement provided by its spokesperson. The statement added that the applied computer science program was developed in full compliance with the accreditor’s standards and is certified by the Department of Education. Dominican also said that, before being contacted by The Hechinger Report, they were not aware of SBPC’s allegations.

SBPC’s Kaufman said they had not contacted Dominican “because we didn’t think there was anything in our investigation that would have been a revelation to the school.”

Ashutosh Desai, one of the co-founders of Make School, declined to comment for this story. Jeremy Rossmann, the other co-founder, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Andrea Graziosi said she spent hours every night re-teaching herself the coding material with online tutorials to compensate for what she said was inadequate instruction at Make School. Credit: Amanda J. Cain for The Hechinger Report

One student, Andrea Graziosi, learned about Make School in early 2020. She badly needed a job. She was recently divorced and desperate for income to support herself and her two children. But with a decade-long gap in her resume, she struggled to lock down anything beyond a gig at a local yoga studio and occasional substitute teaching jobs.

She had earned a bachelor’s degree in finance two decades earlier, but Make School promised that it could help her land a good job, and she became convinced it represented the best shot at supporting her family. So, for an entire year, Graziosi spent 10 hours a day at her computer, listening to instructors. She found most of them to be inadequate at explaining the material. In order to complete her homework assignments, she spent hours each night re-teaching herself the material, with help from Coursera and YouTube tutorials.

In the spring of 2021, Make School’s finances were in disarray. On July 1, 2021, dozens of students who attended Make School before its partnership with Dominican filed a lawsuit against Make School alleging predatory and deceptive marketing and lending practices.

Shortly after the student lawsuit was filed, Make School leaders learned that they would not receive independent accreditation from WSCUC. On July 13, 2021, they told Dominican they planned to close, Pitchford, the university president, said.

Without warning, Graziosi found that she was unable to enroll in classes for the fall. Several instructors announced leaves of absence. In a private Slack channel, students began to panic.

“Is it just that the universities are getting money that they wouldn’t otherwise get if they didn’t take these deals with these boot camps?”

Jonathan Hammond, former UNH boot camp student

Days later, they learned via email that Make School, which Graziosi had trusted to resurrect her professional life, was closing. She said students received mere days to download projects they’d spent months on, projects the school told them would help them get high-paying tech jobs. But without the server to host and display the projects, Graziosi said, they were rendered virtually meaningless.

The news devastated Graziosi. She experienced anxiety so severe, she said, that she sought medical care for heart problems.

“I was holding on to it as my way to be OK, you know, to have a job and to sustain myself,” Graziosi said. “And the way that they did it was so wrong.”

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Exactly three weeks after the lawsuit was filed against Make School, Dominican announced that it was absorbing the applied computer science program.

“We really worked as hard as we could, once that transition happened, to support the transitioning students in every way that we could,” Pitchford said.

According to figures provided by the university, of 167 students enrolled in Make School at the time, 57 percent opted to continue their studies at Dominican, about 20 miles away; only 40 percent of the Make School students who were enrolled in the summer of 2021 went on to earn a degree from Dominican.

Graziosi was not among them. She already had a bachelor’s degree, and, feeling that she’d wasted her time and money on the short-term program, she had zero trust in either institution.

No one knows how well boot camp students fare

Some experts say that Make School’s case is an extreme example. Most boot camp partnerships end up being a positive for students, said Jim Fong, chief research officer at the University Professional and Continuing Education Association. He sees the fact that colleges lend their brand names to these companies as an indication that the colleges believe in their quality.

But boot camp student success rates are typically self-reported and rarely externally vetted. Much of the data that boot camps provide comes only from the students who reply to surveys. Such results are unlikely to reflect overall outcomes.

For instance, the company edX, which offers more than 200 boot camps at about 50 colleges, partnered with Gallup to study the outcomes of its boot camp students. They sent a survey to more than 40,000 people who had gone through the boot camps, and about 4,000 responded. Of those respondents, the study reported that 17 percent had jobs in STEM before attending a boot camp, and after attending, 48 percent had jobs in STEM. They reported median salary increases of between $5,000 and $15,000. But what about the 36,000 students who did not respond?

The federal government collects vast amounts of data from accredited schools, including graduation rates, and tracks earnings data for student loan borrowers. But colleges are not required to report any information on non-credit-bearing boot camps to the Department of Education, according to a spokesperson.

“There’s not yet a regulatory framework that provides clear guidance and boundaries for institutions trying to do this.”

Nicola Pitchford, president, Dominican University of California

The department recently released guidance that would allow the government to review contracts between colleges and third-party providers, but only when their programs are eligible for academic credit. Most boot camps would still be exempt.

Similarly, none of the six regional accrediting agencies, responsible for overseeing most two- and four-year institutions, monitor boot camps, according to officials at each agency.

“There really is not yet a sort of rigorous or uniform way of assuring students of the quality of these programs, what kinds of outcomes they have,” said Lawrence M. Schall, president of the New England Commission of Higher Education. “There is a need for some quality assurance in that world, but we are not there yet.”

The lack of oversight of these boot camps is dangerous for prospective students, said Stephanie Hall, a senior fellow at the think tank Center for American Progress. “A lot of trust is placed on the idea that universities are approved by federal and state governments and accreditors,” she said. “It’s a bit misleading and deceptive on the part of both the university and the boot camp.”

And the attendance costs for these unregulated boot camps are often immense.

“Effective and accessible programs are necessary opportunities for workers, particularly those underserved by traditional 2- and 4-year pathways.”

Anant Agarwal, edX founder

A review of contracts shows that short-term boot camps can cost students up to $18,000, depending on program length; and because these programs typically aren’t eligible for federal aid, students must pay out of pocket or take out private loans.

At Make School, tuition was advertised as $90,000 for the two-year program, but some of that could be paid with federal student loans and grants due to the program’s unique arrangement with Dominican, the Student Borrowers Protection Center found.

The federal aid could be combined with income-share agreements, or ISAs. Under those agreements, students paid nothing up front, but as soon as they landed a job making at least $60,000 a year, they were on the hook to repay their entire tuition in monthly installments. Some students signed multiple ISA agreements, and after they finished paying one back, had to begin paying off another; they could be stuck paying back up to $250,000 for up to a decade, the Student Borrower Protection Center found.

The payout for colleges

The financial benefits of these boot camp agreements for the colleges can be large. A review of seven contracts, including at least one each from edX, ThriveDX and Fullstack Academy, shows that colleges typically receive about 20 percent of the boot camp revenue, while the for-profit companies collect the rest. (Ohio State University redacted the revenue split details from its contract, saying they were “trade secrets.”)

Up until September 2020, the University of Central Florida could get up to 40 percent of the net profits for its boot camp run by ThriveDX (known as HackerU at the time), according to their contract. Students paid $13,000 for courses in ethical hacking, $16,000 for cybersecurity or $25,000 for a bundled version of the two.

If there were four cybersecurity cohorts, each filled with a maximum of 40 students, UCF would be due roughly $1 million per year (minus expenses) from the cybersecurity program alone. In September 2020, the contract was amended so that the college receives 16 percent of all revenue.

Meanwhile, as noted, colleges are not responsible for much. They often just approve access to their brand name logos and alumni databases, which give the boot-camp companies a captive audience for recruiting.

“The third-party provider is doing all the work, the marketing work, all the education, they employ the teachers,” said Kevin Carey, vice president for education policy and knowledge management at the think tank New America. “So it’s 20 percent in exchange for, basically, just selling access to their alumni network and their brands.”

No boot camp providers agreed to be interviewed for this story. A statement from edX founder Anant Agarwal provided by an edX spokesperson emphasized the quality of their programs and said that their boot camps are supported by top engineering faculty from colleges across the country.

“With the labor market the tightest it’s been in a generation, and with the rapid pace of technology projected to displace millions of jobs over the next decade, effective and accessible programs are necessary opportunities for workers, particularly those underserved by traditional 2- and 4-year pathways,” Agarwal wrote.

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But not all students see the value of these boot camps.Jonathan Hammond, who took out a private loan for $10,000 for a coding boot camp at the University of New Hampshire run by edX, said he had no idea that the boot camp wasn’t run by the university until after he’d enrolled.

Emails reviewed by The Hechinger Report show that the person he messaged back and forth with about financing used the email address coding.bootcamp@unh.edu and had an email signature that referred to the correspondent as an admissions coordinator for the “UNH coding boot camp.”

Hammond said that since edX “disguised themselves” as UNH, “I don’t know if I have ever spoken to someone from UNH directly.”

Thespokesperson from edX said that they take measures to ensure students are aware of the partnership between the university and the company, including training staff to answer phones by saying they are calling from the university “in partnership with edX.”

But murkiness about who runs a partner boot camp is common. At UCF, for instance, the name ThriveDX only shows up on a page answering frequently asked questions about one of the university’s boot camps. The university also partners with edX to provide boot camps in UX/UI, digital marketing, data analytics and coding.

UCF officials declined to be interviewed for this story, but provided some data on student outcomes. That data shows that about half of the students who complete the programs opt to receive career support, and about 85 percent of those students get jobs.

One student, Andrew Rodriguez, said that one of the university’s edX boot camps helped him get out of the service industry and into developer jobs building websites for causes he cares about. He said it was worth taking out a private loan to finance his boot camp education.

“My associate degree, I haven’t been able to do anything with it,” Rodriguez said. “Getting a bachelor’s degree gives you more options, but I got pretty good options with just the boot camp.”

He said he understood that the program wasn’t entirely run by the University of Central Florida, but the endorsement of the college helped him trust it.

Hammond, the UNH student, had a different experience. Although he totally immersed himself in his studies each night after work, he said, he still felt the program was not worth the money. He said he still had to take free online courses to fill in the gaps left by the course.

The career support from the UNH boot camp also left a lot to be desired, Hammond said. He recalled that the school’s online job fairs often featured people who worked in tech fields different from the focus of the boot camp or people who had no control over hiring at their companies.

Another student helped Hammond connect with a recruiter about six months after the boot camp ended, he said, and he was hired as a web developer. He said he could have done the same job before attending.

“Is there anything that the students are getting from the colleges?” he said. “Or is it just that the universities are getting money that they wouldn’t otherwise get if they didn’t take these deals with these boot camps?”

This story coding boot camp programs was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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