Black female computer programmer wearing a red, black, and white flannel works on a new software and coding while working from her home during COVID-19 pandemic

Amid the shifting sands of the U.S. economy and ongoing pandemic, tech industry “boot camps” have proliferated and promised entry into stable and well-paying jobs in coding, cybersecurity, and data analytics. Private companies and nonprofits have joined government-sponsored and employer-sponsored programs in the crowded field of technical education providers, positioning themselves as best suited to prepare individuals from non-technical backgrounds for IT jobs. Many BIPOC and low-income students have enrolled in these programs in hopes of attaining the better salaries, remote work, and other perks the industry provides, but the outcomes of those programs often differ significantly, and marginalized students can find themselves paying high costs for subpar training and professional support.

Shonda Warren and HungYiu Wong signed up for boot camp programs marketed toward people seeking to enter the tech industry. Hoping to transition into new well-paying careers, Warren joined a tuition-free, nonprofit coding school in Seattle, Ada Developers Academy, and Wong signed up for a three-month, for-profit web development boot camp run by 2U Inc./Trilogy Education Services at Rutgers University. 

While Warren had a free, year-long training course complete with an internship that transitioned into a full-time role at Uber, Wong repeatedly felt aggrieved by the quality of education he was receiving, which he felt was rushed and rudimentary. Ada was a well-reputed bootcamp with several industry partners. 2U maintains industry partnerships, but despite the fact that Wong’s program had Rutgers University branding, Rutgers did not design the actual curriculum of the class, which was run by Trilogy. In contrast to Warren, Wong did not find a job in the tech industry after program completion.

2U told Prism that the majority of its university partners work with 2U because they want to “expand access to industry aligned education for working adults in their regions but aren’t equipped to run market responsive tech training programs on their own at scale.” The company also stated that “2U’s goal is to ensure that when they graduate from one of our partners’ boot camps, they have the skills employers need and the job search strategies and professional materials to be competitive.”

Warren’s and Wong’s disparate experiences provide cautionary tales for prospective students who may find the prospects of employment in tech sectors particularly enticing amid pressure for workers to “return to normal” despite the ongoing pandemic. While this may seem like a pathway for underrepresented groups to enter the tech industry, the differences remain disturbingly stark between boot camps that effectively pave the way to a stable career path and ineffective boot camps that pull students of color into a tunnel of debt and self-blame. 

The appeal of the tech industry for BIPOC

The tech industry has grown quickly and consistently over the past decade, including during the pandemic. Fueled by a new economy that favored remote work, online shopping, and digital communication, companies like Amazon and Apple made record revenues. The pandemic also hastened the diffusion of tech jobs across the country, creating more opportunities in regions outside pricey hubs like New York and Silicon Valley. 

The median salary for a web developer in 2020 was $77,200, far above the median salary of $41,535 for American workers, a number that is even lower for Black and Latinx people. But BIPOC who want to enter the tech industry face a myriad of obstacles. Four-year college degrees in computer science are often financially inaccessible and incompatible with the needs of adults working to provide for their families. BIPOC are also less likely to have access to mentors. In the U.S., Black and Latinx Americans hold 7% and 8% of jobs in tech, respectively. 

The lucrative opportunities proffered by the tech industry and the inaccessibility of most higher education make short, for-profit, part-time boot camps a tantalizing opportunity despite the cost and lack of evidence regarding their outcomes. But BIPOC and low-income adults who enter these programs are often confronted with an inadequate education and unmanageable debt.

The perils of for-profit boot camp programs

Advocates say that for-profit schools and programs can often be predatory, saddling students with high levels of debt while providing mediocre education and minimal support. For-profit educational programs disproportionately recruit from Black and Latinx communities, and Black and Latinx individuals are more likely to attend a for-profit college than white individuals. The financial pitfalls of for-profit education also disproportionately affect students of color, who are far more likely to suffer from high debt loads and poor job placement. At the Rutgers boot camp, tuition is $11,995 for the part-time program and $12,995 the full-time program. 

“The people who have already been pushed out of mainstream higher education and don’t have access to mainstream higher education have become the prey of well-funded but fundamentally substance-less and risky companies peddling for-profit educational products,” said Ben Kaufman, director of research and investigations at the Student Borrower Protection Center.

As of July 2021, at least 550 colleges and universities have contracted with online program managers (OPMs) to provide over 2,900 online educational programs across the country. For-profit coding boot camps—usually unaccredited—have partnered with universities to provide short-term training in computer programming under the auspices of university branding and reputation. These boot camps usually take around 80% of the revenue while universities take the rest. Universities lend their brand for marketing but typically have no role in boot camp curriculum

Trilogy Education Services is a for-profit company owned by 2U that runs boot camp programs in partnership with dozens of universities across the country, including several state-funded public institutions. Trilogy offers both six-month, part-time boot camps and three-month, full-time boot camps. While their programs have attracted students through their brevity, accessibility online, and partnerships with public universities, some students have felt misled about their costs, outcomes, and educational quality.

Some students say that 2U has a pattern of enrolling students by using aggressive and misleading recruitment tactics. Program websites and social media pages use the domain name and branding from the university they are partnering with, leeching off the reputations of colleges like UC Berkeley and Columbia University.  Some students who asked for preliminary information about programs told Prism they received repeated calls and emails from program recruiters urging them to sign up as soon as possible.

“The phone calls would be quite frequent,” said Wong. “After I put down the phone, I said, ‘Oh, let me consider,’ and they would say, ‘Let me call you back in 30 minutes.’ And they actually do call you. It was a very sales-like tactic.”

There are no prerequisites for 2U’s software development boot camps, which are advertised as accessible for anyone regardless of previous experience or education. But former instructors said this practice causes many people who lack necessary skills—such as English language proficiency—to enroll in a program that fails to provide the support they require.

“[There were] more than a handful of students who just struggled with English and didn’t do well because of that,” said Max VanDuyne, a former Trilogy instructor. “Some of them were willing to ask me to repeat and go over things again, but a lot of students just felt like they couldn’t speak up, and so they would just quietly fade and then stop attending.”

Even students with college degrees, such as Wong, struggled to keep up with the grueling pace of the curriculum, which spends mere months covering material that often spans years of study in college-level computer science programs.

“Six-months, part-time, even with the most committed students and excellent instructors, is quite a stretch to build a robust understanding of that much content,” said Amy Ko, a professor of computer science at the University of Washington, after reviewing the content covered by the program Wong attended.

Inmar Luna, completed a Trilogy boot camp in March through the University of Minnesota, said that he learned a lot during the boot camp but is unsure whether his investment was worth it. Luna obtained a well-paying job in IT before receiving his certificate, and he has noticed that he is unqualified for most coding jobs because he lacks a bachelor’s degree and the coding proficiency he would need. He is currently paying $400 a month to pay off his tuition.

Although 42% of 2U students were BIPOC in 2021, a web survey from Gallup Inc. found that only 28% of Black boot camp students and 30% of Latinx students moved from a non-STEM to a STEM role after program completion. Meanwhile, the company reports the median debt for students who graduated in 2018 is approximately $9,000, around the cost of a year of in-state college education. 

Some of 2U’s programs cater to the needs of BIPOC and low-income students, such as the company’s partnership with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) that allows students at partnering colleges to attend 16-week boot camps free of cost through a sponsorship by Netflix. But only a select number of students have access to these programs for free, and there is little evidence that these programs are delivering an effective education. While there are certainly exceptions, for-profit boot camps seem to be financially exploiting large numbers of BIPOC students while failing to deliver employment outcomes.

Supporting students of color can lead to professional success

Ko says that her research on coding boot camps has found that camps that make an effort to prioritize and provide support for students of color seem to have a better track record of successful employment outcomes than for-profit camps, where students often had to pay high tuition, compromise work-life balance, and teach themselves due to low quality of instruction. Participants of color reported that these conditions made it difficult to finish the program and find related employment. 

“In general, the not-for-profit programs that prioritize student success—colleges and universities included—are generally going to be better than any for-profit school, where the students are the product,” Ko said. 

Nationwide, there are several tuition-free nonprofit training programs specifically designed to help BIPOC access coding education and increase diverse representation in software engineering, including Ada Developers Academy, Mississippi Coding Academies, and LaunchCode. Ada Developers Academy’s mission specifically mentions helping women and gender-diverse adults, particularly BIPOC, obtain successful careers as software developers. The nonprofit program is 11 months and tuition-free, with a competitive admissions process and high school diploma/GED requirement designed to ensure that students have the tools and motivation to succeed. Students spend six months in the classroom before doing a five-month paid internship. 

“It’s really based on tools and resources so that when the students are in that internship setting, they feel empowered, they have an understanding that it is their place to be, and they know that they have resources behind them,” said Danielle Ishem, the vice president of equity and policy at Ada.

Notably, Ada also offers an array of supports designed to help students of color progress in the program and develop the skills to be workplace changemakers. A social justice curriculum is baked into regular coursework to teach students how to advocate for themselves and other underrepresented communities. The program assigns each student a mentor, hosts affinity groups for both current students and alumni, and provides extra support for students who fall behind.

“I know people who felt like they were struggling in the program and reached out to the career people and the education department and just let them know, ‘I feel like I need more help,’ and Ada provided tutors,” Warren said.

Ultimately, Ada reports a 94% job placement rate, and according to Ada staff, around 50% of Ada graduates, including Warren, transition into full-time work at the company where they intern. St. Louis-based LaunchCode, another free training program, reports that 95% of its participants who graduated before 2019 were still working in tech in 2020, with nearly half working at the company where they were placed.

“Buyer beware” still applies to coding boot camps

As the tech industry continues to flourish, lucrative job opportunities in IT continue to be appealing for BIPOC looking to change career paths. But prospective students should be cautious when evaluating prospective programs, especially when they can face disparate consequences for choosing a program that does not meet their needs. 

Industry experts note that there are a number of steps prospective coding students can take when considering enrollment in a tech program that help lead to employment. Firstly, students should check their state’s Eligible Training Providers list. To receive Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) funding, states are required to identify programs that meet several performance outcomes. Approved programs must show evidence of education leading to employment and may be eligible for WIOA scholarship funds. 

Additionally, while program staff will often provide contacts for prospective students to speak to about the program, going outside of those recommendations for supplemental perspectives is also beneficial. Speaking with current and former students of the program who came in with a similar educational background can also yield vital insights into how the program actually works.

Finally, students should beware of programs that have no prerequisites, do not offer financial aid, and have an unusually low time commitment. If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is, and students can find themselves saddled with debt while still lacking the necessary tech industry skills for the jobs they want.

The appeal of a stable, flexible, well-paying job in the tech industry is especially strong as the pandemic drags on and the U.S. faces more economic struggles, a fact that both for-profit and nonprofit tech education programs are keenly aware of. The onus is actually on institutions like the federal government and universities to clamp down on predatory recruitment practices and subpar training by tech education programs and coding boot camps. But when those institutions fail to do so, consumers are often left to protect themselves, a fact that BIPOC are all too familiar with.

[CORRECTION: We have updated this piece to more accurately reflect the partnership between Rutgers and 2U. We have also revised the piece to accurately reflect 2U’s industry partnerships.]

Sravya Tadepalli is a freelance writer based in Oregon. Her writing has been featured in Arlington Magazine, Teaching Tolerance, the Portland Tribune, Oregon Humanities, and the textbook America Now. Sravya...