Work Shift Explainer
Making sense of tech bootcamps, coding schools, and on-ramps
Bootcamps have become synonymous with short-term tech training.
Their rapid rise, equally swift reality check, and resurgence amid the pandemic have been widely chronicled. Bootcamps haven’t quite reached MOOC status in the popular imagination, but are arguably a household name. A nationally representative survey this past fall found that three-quarters of American adults and nine in 10 business leaders had heard of tech bootcamps.
But as their name recognition has grown, “bootcamps” also have become a catchall term. In that same national survey, a shockingly high 4 percent of adults—the equivalent of almost 8.4 million people said they were currently enrolled in a bootcamp. The best estimates put the actual number in the tens of thousands, not millions.
Here, we make sense of the true bootcamp market, along with two closely related education models: coding schools and on-ramps. Taken together, they are a trifecta of short, intensive training—each designed to serve different learner populations:
- Bootcamps: These programs are short, intensive tech training designed for learners—typically with bachelor’s degrees—who are looking to launch careers or change fields.
- Coding schools: It’s easy to see coding schools as the grown-up version of bootcamps—they are longer programs and offer more broad education alongside tech training. But unlike bootcamps, coding schools are designed to be an alternative, not an add-on, to college. And most have a strong diversity and equity mission.
- On-ramps: Like bootcamps, on-ramps are short, intensive training programs but are designed for workers without a college degree. They also offer more wraparound supports and basic skills training. On-ramps target low-income or unemployed workers who need additional education and training in order to move into living-wage jobs.
All three program types operate as stand-alone education and training, while bootcamps and on-ramps also often embed in employer training programs. Google, for example, recently announced a partnership with Merit America and Year Up, both nonprofit on-ramps, to help train 20,000 adults through the company’s new $100 million Google Career Certificates Fund.
Regardless of whether their work is embedded in corporate training, bootcamps, on-ramps, and coding schools all have a strong focus on employer connections, whether through internships, employer-sponsored projects, or hiring partnerships. Those employer connections are, in fact, a hallmark of what each offers.
Ada Developers Academy, for example, focuses on developing close relationships not just with company leaders but especially with hiring managers. The program is focused on getting more women and gender-expansive adults into tech—and it interviews managers who’d like to hire its learners to ensure they’re a good fit. The academy is also creating a training program for managers on how to approach hiring with a more inclusive mind-set and criteria.
A lot of the organization’s success hinges on relationship management, says Bethany Lindsey, vice president of education and innovation at Ada. The goal, after all, isn’t just to train people but to start them on a new career path.
“What we really want to do is change tech,” Lindsey says. “And to do that, we have to change who is in the tech industry.”
Work Shift Explains: Tech Pathways
This Work Shift Explainer is part of a series on evolving and growing pathways into good tech jobs. You can check out more of the series at the links below.
Part 1: The reboot in tech training. Many of the jobs in the new tech economy are still being filled like they were in the 1990s. But that’s starting to change—and here, we take a look at the new and growing pathways into good tech jobs.
Part 2: Apprenticeships grow into tech. Registered apprenticeship programs in tech have grown more than 41 percent in the past year. In this explainer, we take a deeper look at tech apprenticeships, with a focus on how they work, who pays for them, and who they benefit.
Part 3: A new language for CS degrees: Degree programs are a tried-and-true path into the top jobs in tech, but many learners get lost along the way. Now, programs are evolving to rethink what it means to work, learn, and make it in tech. In this explainer, we take a look at diversity in computer science, the ROI of degree programs, and what’s changing.
General Assembly built the bootcamp market—and along with providers like the Flatiron School, Galvanize, and Hack Reactor, it remains one of the dominant players in the space. Its growth and development over the past 10 years also provide a useful window into how the bootcamp market is evolving.
The big idea: About a decade ago, providers like General Assembly took what Tom Ogletree, vice president of social impact and external affairs at the company, describes as a centuries-old model—accelerated, practitioner-taught, immersive training for adults looking to break into a skilled occupation—and applied it to skill groups like software engineering, data science, and UX design.
Bootcamps specialize in working with recent graduates and college-educated career changers who are looking to break into high-paying jobs in those fields. Training is intensive and measured in weeks or months, not years.
Course Report, which does perhaps the most comprehensive assessment of the market for coding bootcamps, estimates it was a $350 million industry with about 100 providers and more than 25,000 graduates in 2020. Career Karma, a more recent entrant into the bootcamp rating game with support from Y Combinator, looks at the market differently—but it still only puts enrollment at just over 44,000 attendees and graduates.
How it works
The basics: Bootcamps are typically designed to layer specific tech competencies—front-end development or UX design, for example—on top of an existing base of work experience or college-level knowledge and “human” skills.
- Bootcamps are intensive, with most learners training for 40 to 80 hours a week. Most last for 12 to 14 weeks, and Course Report’s analysis has found that the programs have generally been getting longer over time.
- Education and training are provided through coursework and especially through project-based learning. The emphasis is on developing real-world tech skills, not on theory.
Evolving model: Over time, bootcamp providers have branched out beyond their original offerings, creating less intensive training options and designing custom programs for universities and businesses.
- A handful of bootcamps have partnered with traditional higher education institutions, such as Flatiron School with Yale University, to offer training for college credit.
- Others have partnered with universities’ continuing education schools to offer white-labeled or co-branded bootcamps outside of for-credit pathways. (Course Report has an excellent, detailed guide to this corner of the market.)
- Online program management companies have made major inroads in that market as well. Trilogy Education Services, owned by 2U, runs about 50 university bootcamps. Noodle and Quickstart also are players in this space.
For Noodle’s offering, General Assembly provides the curriculum and instructors for bootcamps that are white-labeled by institutions like the University of Virginia. General Assembly also has experimented with community college partnerships that could extend its offerings to less advantaged students. The company worked with LaGuardia Community College through the Obama administration’s TechHire initiative, for example. It also partnered with Adobe to create the Adobe Digital Academy, which targets candidates from underrepresented groups and provides a noncollege path into tech roles at the company.
- In recent years, bootcamps have also increasingly focused on professional development courses and customized training for companies, such as Galvanize’s work with IBM and General Electric and Hack Reactor’s broad focus on skills development for employees already in tech.
- For the general public, many bootcamp providers now offer part-time options and single courses, in addition to their full-time experiences.
Some, like General Assembly, also have moved into tech-adjacent fields like business and design. Reflecting that expansion, the company doesn’t even call itself a bootcamp, but a training provider for high-demand skills that focuses on lifelong learning.
Students / The vast majority of bootcamps are for-profit companies and, with the exception of corporate contract training, students pay full freight for their education and training. The average cost is just above $14,000 for full-time bootcamps. And because the programs typically are not accredited, students aren’t eligible to participate in federal aid programs. (That said, GI Bill benefits can be used for certain programs.) Students pay out of pocket, with private loans, or through income-share agreements or other alternative financing.
Income-share agreements, under which students don’t pay tuition and instead pay a portion of their salary postgraduation, have been particularly popular in the bootcamp space. Those arrangements, however, have come under increasing scrutiny at both bootcamps and the few traditional colleges that offer them.
Employers / A growing number of employers are paying bootcamps to create and deliver customized training for their existing employees. Others underwrite cohorts at bootcamps as a talent development strategy, essentially functioning as a pre-apprenticeship program. (You can read more about apprenticeships in this previous explainer.)
The vast majority of bootcamp students have attended college, and most have earned a degree. Though a number of bootcamps are expanding their target population, they are generally designed to serve recent graduates and career-changing professionals.
- At General Assembly, which publishes some of the most comprehensive demographic and outcomes data, 57 percent of bootcamp students have bachelor’s degrees, and another 16 percent have an advanced degree.
Many bootcamps also target people already working in and around tech. A recent national survey of employers, done by Best Colleges and YouGov, found that companies were less likely to hire from bootcamps than they were to encourage existing employees to attend them to develop advanced skills. Three in 10 said they had done so.
Taken together, bootcamps’ focus on new grads, career switchers, and upskilling professionals is very different from tech on-ramps and certain types of employer-based training that provide pathways for adults without degrees.
Bootcamps most typically prepare graduates for jobs as software engineers—front end, back end, full stack, app—UX designers, and data scientists.
The fundamental premise of bootcamps is that they provide pathways into high-demand jobs. Providers boast that their graduates are being hired by big-name companies across industries—like Microsoft, Google, Visa, Citi, Vox, and Spotify. But they tend to be inconsistent in how they report and track participant outcomes. Consumer groups like the Century Foundation have argued for stronger regulatory oversight of the sector, particularly bootcamp partnerships with colleges and universities that co-brand training.
Many bootcamps do set a sort of minimum threshold for the salary outcomes they expect. Ones that operate income-share agreements, for example, typically don’t begin to charge until students are making between $40,000 and $50,000 a year. Course Report surveys of bootcamp graduates have found average pay well above that. According to their findings:
- Eighty-three percent of graduates have been employed in a job requiring the technical skills learned at the bootcamp.
- The average starting salary of a bootcamp grad is $69,079—an increase of about 56 percent, or $25,000, over their previous earnings.
On the employer side, about 12 percent of all business leaders and just 18 percent of those doing tech hiring say they have hired candidates who have completed bootcamp training, according to the Best Colleges and YouGov survey.
“Bootcamp training may be a viable career pathway for many high-demand tech jobs,” says Melissa Venable, an education adviser who analyzed the data. “But there’s still a gap.”
Reuben Ogbonna was dean of students at Coney Island Prep, a charter school that prides itself on preparing working- and middle-class students for the top colleges in the country. He vividly remembers the “signing days,” when teachers, parents, and other family members would celebrate as students publicly chose what college they’d attend.
It was bigger than graduation.
“Then, after signing day, it’s me and the college counselors sitting down with the families saying, ‘you can’t afford this,’” Ogbonna says.
The students had two choices: go anyway and risk crippling debt or being flat out unable to continue at some point. Or go to one of the lower-cost options nearby, often in the City University of New York system. Many of those institutions have a proud track record of moving lower-income kids into the top 20 percent of earners. But even so, almost half of students at universities in the system don’t graduate within six years.
“I saw colleges failing my students over and over again,” Ogbonna says. “The colleges were failing my students. My students weren’t failing out of college.”
But the alternatives—a whole host of workforce-training options—didn’t come with the same potential payoff as college. Out of Ogbonna’s frustration with the situation, the Marcy Lab School was born.
The big idea: Like other coding schools, Marcy Lab School is distinct from the broader bootcamp market in that it’s deliberately designed to be an alternative to college, not an add-on. And it focuses primarily on serving students straight out of high school.
Only a tiny slice of the bootcamp market—a handful of providers like Marcy Lab, Turing School, Holberton School, and the original Make School—fall in this category. They tend to have a foundational equity mission that sets them apart from bootcamps on the whole, and they differ from bootcamps in being focused on reimagining the whole college experience.
Ogbonna’s perspective is a common one among those founders. Make School, now essentially absorbed by Dominican University of California, was born out of Jeremy Rossmann’s disillusion with MIT’s computer science program. And the Turing School was Jeff Casimir’s response to the limits of both the bootcamp model and traditional degree programs.
How it works
The basics: Nevertheless, the lines between a bootcamp and a coding school are blurry. Many students at the Turing School are career switchers, for example, and almost 70 percent have a degree or previous college experience. So the school certainly doesn’t exclusively serve as a first alternative to college.
But the goal of many coding schools is to be a stand-alone option. For example, both Turing (successfully) and Make School (unsuccessfully) pursued independent accreditation.
- Like bootcamps, the training at coding schools is highly intensive and typically lasts two years or less. Marcy Lab’s program is one year, while Turing’s is only seven months and Holberton’s flagship program is 20 months.
- Unlike bootcamps, coding schools often provide some degree of broad education alongside technical and project-based training.
At Marcy Lab, that means studying the essays, poems, and novels of authors like James Baldwin and having wide-ranging discussions about equity, justice, and community. “That’s the part that feels a lot like college,” Ogbonna says. “We’re looking to recreate that experience that they would otherwise have at a really, really good college.”
The theory: The idea is to improve computer science education by combining the soft skills of a more traditional college education with the intensive, hands-on training of a bootcamp.
- The model also shortens time to completion, ideally reducing both the tuition costs and the opportunity cost of not working.
- What it lacks in the signaling of a degree it attempts to make up for in employer connections and other forms of networking.
But of the short, intensive models on the market, coding schools hold the most potential as a true alternative to college for students who otherwise would have pursued a degree. Some that haven’t survived, like Make School, have spurred meaningful innovation in traditional computer science programs. And some providers are reaching a new stability—Turing, for example, recently received national accreditation and access to the federal financial aid system.
Students / At most coding schools, students pay full freight for their education and training. Marcy Lab School, which is free to its fellows, is an exception.
- Holberton charges students $50,000 to $60,000, depending on the program. Turing costs $20,000, including fees for a laptop.
Most programs aren’t accredited—though that may be changing—so students aren’t eligible to participate in federal aid programs. Students pay out of pocket, with private loans, or with alternative financing. At a few places, like Turing, veterans are eligible to use their GI Bill benefits, and its learners could eventually be eligible for other federal aid programs.
Philanthropy / Marcy Lab School is an outlier in this category in that its programs are fully funded by philanthropy and charge no fees to students. That arrangement is much more common among on-ramps and reflects the institution’s laser focus on equity and economic advancement.
Coding schools are designed as an alternative to college. And they intentionally target students from less advantaged backgrounds who historically haven’t been well-served by traditional higher education.
But the numbers served are exceedingly small. Marcy Lab, for example, started with a cohort of nine students and has grown to 50 in three cohorts for this academic year. The school is planning for 100 to 120 next year.
Coding schools aim to prepare graduates for jobs as software engineers—front end, back end, full stack, app—UX designers, and data scientists at the top tech firms in the country or at other major corporations with big tech functions.
As with bootcamps, coding schools are largely left on their own to report outcomes. Typically, they say, starting salaries for graduates are between $75,000 and $100,000, plus benefits.
- Marcy Lab School reports that graduates have a median salary of $103,500 at 60 days after graduation.
- At Turing School, which reports detailed career outcomes quarterly, 41 students graduated in the last quarter of 2021, and of those, 16 had jobs by the end of December, with a median salary of $83,200. Two additional students had left early for jobs. In general, Turing graduates can expect to spend six weeks looking for jobs.
Midwest-based i.c. stars is a classic on-ramp. The nonprofit provides four-month tech bootcamp for free to cohorts of 20 learners in both Chicago and Milwaukee. The day stretches from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Friday, and participants sign on to an “On Time, No Absence” policy.
Learning is hands-on, with each cohort focusing on a specific project from an industry partner. In Chicago, i.c. stars recently partnered with Accenture to have students build an app to assist with the company’s return-to-work policies and procedures. In Milwaukee, students worked to update the internal IT portal for Molson Coors, using SharePoint and integrating Microsoft 365 apps. Other recent project partners have included DeVry University and Medline.
The big idea: The program specializes in serving local residents who don’t have secure housing, and learners typically come in making between $10,000 and $15,000 a year. As with other on-ramps, the focus is first and foremost on economic stability and advancement for participants.
Learners are given a stipend to compensate them for their time. For the past year, program graduates have landed in roles that pay an average of just above $46,500 annualized. Some start in part-time jobs or contract roles run through i.c. stars’ staffing arm.
To make highly intensive training manageable for people with a lot of instability in their lives, the program provides an array of wraparound supports. Coaches, mentors, career skills workshops, employer networking, and connections to housing and benefits organizations are provided throughout the bootcamp and for the next two years.
What’s changing: The approach is high-touch and, until recently, was in person with a heavy emphasis on team cohesion and peer support. Recruiting was done mostly through word of mouth. It was a successful, if boutique, model—but, as for many on-ramp programs, the pandemic changed all that.
Training had to be moved online, with a whole new set of supports. The program not only has had to secure laptops and internet access for participants but also now regularly ships desks and chairs. Even more critical, mentoring and peer and instructor bonding are much harder when participants are fully remote—and the program has seen higher attrition rates as a result.
It’s now wrestling with how to strike the balance between online and in-person instruction, says Elizabeth Ferruelo, chief revenue officer for the organization. Physical connections matter, especially for learners who don’t have reliable housing and are juggling a lot of competing demands. But, Ferruelo says, i.c. stars can’t ignore the fact that many of the jobs they’re preparing people for are going to be hybrid or remote.
“We want to strike a balance,” Ferruelo says. “And we want to mirror what’s happening in the world of employers. It’s unrealistic to expect that people will walk into an entry-level role that will be full-time in person.”
As the group plans to expand into the Kansas City market, for example, it is looking into delivering the bulk of training online from Chicago but providing on-the-ground mentoring and support.
How it works
On-ramps are highly focused training programs designed to take people from poverty, or near it, to family-sustaining wages. The best programs are highly attuned to local and regional employer needs, but the fundamental focus is on economic advancement for individuals.
- The Strada Education Network estimated the overall size of the on-ramp market several years ago was about 100,000 learners, often in programs of only a dozen or so students each. Many—but certainly not all—of the on-ramps focused at least in part on tech pathways.
The basics: On-ramps provide occupation-specific education through short-term training and employer-sponsored projects, sometimes followed by internships or contract placements with companies. Some are even billed as pre-apprenticeships.
- In addition to technical training, on-ramps focus heavily on developing general career skills, like time management, communication, and teamwork.
- Many also provide wraparound supports like mentoring, help accessing federal benefits and other assistance programs, and mental health counseling.
The theory: On-ramps are designed to quickly move people who are unemployed or in working poverty into living-wage jobs.
- A hallmark of on-ramps is a heavy focus on developing career skills and providing employer connections for learners.
- Many, like i.c. stars, provide a stipend or work option that allows students to earn money while learning.
- A number do so by placing students in short internships or contract work during their training, which doubles as a try-before-you-buy opportunity for employers, allowing them to test out candidates’ skills before hiring.
The debate: On-ramps rely heavily on philanthropy and face persistent questions about whether they can grow to a level that is commensurate with societal needs for economic advancement options. The programs are often connected to the corporate social-responsibility arms of companies, rather than with HR or departmental hiring managers.
Some on-ramps are working to change that. In its work with Molson, for example, i.c. stars is connected to the company’s Emerging Tech and Innovation team. Ada Developers Academy is heavily focused on direct connections with hiring managers. And the Opportunity Onramps program at Workday—an on-ramp hybrid that’s run by both the company and Year Up—was just moved from the social-responsibility team to human resources. (More on that in an upcoming explainer on employer-based training.)
Philanthropy + corporate fees / On-ramps are primarily philanthropically supported, though some make money through corporate placement fees and contract hiring arrangements.
At i.c. stars, for example, the cost per graduate is about $35,000. “It’s resource intensive, and we provide a stipend to participants,” Ferruelo says. Costs are covered primarily through grants, gifts, and corporate sponsorships, with a rough breakdown of:
- 50+ percent support from corporate and private foundations. “That’s been the most COVID-resistant form of revenue,” she says.
- 15 percent earned income, for the social staffing agency the on-ramp runs and other contract engagements
- 10 percent corporate sponsorship, coming from HR or tech budgets
- 10 percent in events
- The remainder is from individual giving (about 8 percent) and other small categories of funding.
On-ramps by definition are focused on learners who are underrepresented in tech, but the demographic profile varies based on the organization’s mission.
- The typical participant at i.c. stars is only earning $10,000 to $15,000 a year when they join the program, and the vast majority stopped their education at high school. Only 7 percent have an associate or bachelor’s degree, and 90 percent are people of color.
- In the lastest incoming class at Ada Developers Academy, on the other hand, about 83 percent have a bachelor’s or higher. The majority have a household income of less than $50,000 a year, however, and 74 percent are people of color and 45 percent identify as LGBTQIA+.
On-ramps prepare people for a wide range of jobs, including software engineers—front end, back end, full stack, app—UX designers, and IT specialists. Others focus on moving people into paid apprenticeships in tech following their initial training.
- Recent jobs landed by i.c. stars’ graduates include: cloud support specialist at Cloudbakers, IT specialist at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, master data analyst at Accenture, software engineer at Fast Radius, and junior developer at Amsted Rail.
Program outcomes are self-reported, if at all, and the results and level of information provided vary widely. That said, most on-ramps that continue to receive philanthropic backing report that a majority of participants complete training and advance in their careers.
- i.c. stars reports a 73 percent completion rate of its program, and it is working toward a goal of 80 percent. Last year, 83 percent of graduates landed a job related to their training within three months, and 85 percent by six months. The average annualized wage was almost $47,000, typically up from $10,000 to $15,000 before starting the program.
- Ada Developers Academy reports a 97 percent completion rate, and 92 percent are in software developer roles within six months of graduation.