Almost two years ago, I wrote a couple of features on the potential of the coding bootcamp industry, including one published here on VentureBeat. I talked to founders and other stakeholders from more than a dozen bootcamp companies at that time and have been an armchair follower of the sector since then. But recently I did some research for a private equity investor in education, online learning, and edtech who has been looking at coding bootcamps, and I thought I would share some observations on what I rounded up about the current status of this market.

There isn’t enough independent information about bootcamps

The motivation for this investor’s inquiry was the perception on his part that there is so little serious reporting or research on bootcamps, which I think he’s right about.

Consider some of the questions I raised two years ago:

  • Does this model only work for the cream of the crop, or can it scale to less prepared or less motivated students who make up most of the market potential?
  • Is this model too labor intensive to scale? Can online versions be as effective?
  • What applications does this have in subjects beyond software engineering?
  • What happens to these newly trained employees in a few years when the technology and employment landscape changes? Are they job ready or career ready?
  • Does the need to market one product to two audiences — students and employers — drive up the cost and limit growth?
  • How real are the eye-popping placement rates that bootcamps boast about?

These questions remain mostly unanswered, because the vast majority of information out there about coding bootcamps is put out by self-interested parties.

I have no particular reason to doubt the claims of the people operating these schools, but there really hasn’t been any independent verification. The press, for the most part, hasn’t taken a hard look at the statistics, with some notable exceptions like Anya Kamenetz at NPR.

Meanwhile, in comparison to higher ed, bootcamps and their students don’t have the benefit of:

  • a U.S. News and World Report-like guide for the industry
  • a nonprofit accreditation organization like most universities voluntarily subject themselves to
  • a government review agency

Not that any of those would be an unmitigated good. You can imagine how introducing any one of those factors might promote some of the weaknesses of our current education models without supporting the unique potential of boot camps.

Regarding government review, there is some activity in that area. The U.S. Department of Education has signaled that it will experiment with allowing federal financial aid funds to be used for coding bootcamps, which will depend on some improved reporting of outcomes.

But that isn’t happening yet. According to Salvador Rodriguez in The International Business Times (another exception to my swipe at the press):

“Nearly a year ago, these schools . . . made a pledge to reform. The schools, part of the New Economy Skills Training Association, or Nesta, sent a letter to President Barack Obama last March expressing their commitment to release standardized, annual audited outcomes reports . . . . Yet almost 12 months later, only one of the 10 schools has delivered on its promise to the White House.”

The investor I talked with naturally hesitates to put his firm’s money where the value proposition, though powerful, is so unproven. There are reasonable questions about bootcamps as an investment, as a choice for individual students, and as a model for reforming education.

And bootcamps probably have reasonable answers to those questions.

But for now we’re at a stalemate without independent auditing or review.

Watch out for the next Corinthian College . . . or worse

The number of coding bootcamps is growing very quickly, but they don’t have any brand differentiation. To the customer, they look like a blur of similar products. In the short term, this may produce some fly-by-night operators.

Over time, consolidation will be inevitable, so look for the market leaders to start buying up the laggards to build chains similar to what Kaplan Test Prep has done, or else developing a franchise similar to what we’ve seen with Sylvan Learning Centers and Kumon tutoring.

That could create an environment of downward price pressures, compromises on quality, and boiler-room sales tactics.

If you fuel that fire with federal funding, you risk getting a Corinthian College, as Clint Schmidt, COO of Bloc, argued here previously. Even worse, you could get zombie schools not quite as bad off as Corinthian, never shutting down and continuing to take money from students and from taxpayers without providing a valuable education in return.

Better bootcamps, in the meantime, face the risk of looking like University of Phoenix, with a viable product but struggling to distance themselves from the reputation that bad actors in the industry are creating.

We desperately need bootcamps or something like them

Higher ed cannot fill the skills gap or the market demand from either the student side or the employer side. It doesn’t have enough infrastructure, and it doesn’t have enough flexibility to create online, hybrid, and off-campus alternatives, because it is too bound up with its current systems for accreditation, funding, scheduling, staffing, and credentialing. Higher ed’s other limitations:

Investors are excited about coding schools because the enormous market potential is matched by an enormous need.

Bootcamps are unique in a way that matters

Despite the legitimate questions about bootcamps, they do something unique that is meaningful: They match learners with employers. Employer partners are baked into the recipe.

It seems blazingly obvious now, but existing certificate and degree programs only imagine hypothetical employers. If I was in charge of academic affairs at a university, I would require any new program proposal mentioning job preparation to involve actual companies. Show me the living and breathing employer who is going to take our students at the end of this curriculum.

Some other innovative new programs make very strong connections between the student and the employer. College for America’s competency-based degree is one where employers are heavily consulted in the design of the curriculum. But only bootcamps, as far as I know, make such a direct match, and that makes them an entirely new species in the ecosystem.

We need bootcamps and higher ed to work together

When it comes to job readiness, I suspect that, in many cases, a bootcamp’s training will prove to have a half life of a few years. Which could be fine. If you really do get an above average salary after 12 weeks and $12,000 dollars of tuition, having to put in another $12,000 every few years to keep up-to-date might be perfectly workable. But in the meantime, coding bootcamps don’t promise foundational development in communication, analysis, and leadership that is necessary for lifelong career growth.

That’s where higher ed should concentrate on excelling. For short-term job readiness and lasting career readiness, I’m watching the emerging examples of degree programs that are figuring out how to partner with the bootcamp format.

I like to think of bootcamps as the “last 10 percent.” I’d love to see something like this:

  • an old-fashioned degree (8 semesters or possibly a couple less)
  • with about half that time building a broad foundation in the liberal arts
  • and including a deep dive into one meaningful scholarly subject (a.k.a. the major)
  • followed by something like what coding bootcamps currently do to prepare people for an existing entry-level position at an existing employer.

Another option is to reverse that order, since many young people wish to be job ready before they value what college has to offer them. Universities could partner with bootcamps to offer the “last 10 percent” first with an eye to bringing in those students when they or their employers realize their potential is limited until they get more foundational skills.

The format of the bootcamp piece should be fluid, depending on how the market and technologies are changing, and it wouldn’t have to be just in software engineering. Some bootcamps like General Assembly already offer a broader range of subjects like digital marketing, UX design, data analysis, sales, and product management.

Bootcamps can save higher ed from itself

Another way of putting it is that higher ed needs to be open to “plug and play” models, which would mean deciding quickly to decide quickly — something that higher ed is currently terrible at. The bootcamp that can find a way to plug its model in at the right time with higher education, should find a big market.

(As my friend Pete Sena has argued on-demand services like Uber are fundamentally changing the consumer mindset to expect on-demand as the default option. Any organization that can’t deliver according to these on-demand expectations is going to lose customers.)

For that matter, universities need ways to respond to market demands other than just offering a new major or degree.

Consider, for example, the fact that needs other than software engineering will inevitably emerge in the next few years. (My bets are on business development, design thinking for product innovation, and jobs related to the growth of artificial intelligence.) Right now, higher ed’s default response to every need is a degree program.

It’s a compulsive behavior. You say, “skills gap,” and higher ed says, “a sequence of 10 courses, 15-weeks long, meeting on Tuesday and Thursday nights over a period of two years . . . to commence after a two-year period of planning and approval.”

In higher ed, learning is automatically equated with a major course of study, which creates more hungry beasts that have to be feed in perpetuity. Higher ed needs to be saved from itself, and coding bootcamps offer a tantalizing way to do that.

Robert McGuire operates McGuire Editorial, a content marketing services firm specializing in education, online learning, workforce development and education technology companies. You can follow him on Twitter or LinkedIn.

VentureBeat's mission is to be a digital town square for technical decision-makers to gain knowledge about transformative enterprise technology and transact. Learn more about membership.