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Analysis: How Bootcamps Could Disrupt Higher Ed

man working at computer, coding

The Christensen Institute has weighed in on the potential for coding and computer science bootcamps to disrupt traditional higher education. In a new report, "Betting on Bootcamps," the organization, which focuses on "disruptive innovation," has offered five scenarios for the future of these short-term, workforce-aligned training programs that emphasize professional success.

The Institute used its "six-question framework" to understand the potential for disruption posed by bootcamps:

First, the frameworks asks, is the innovation geared to people who aren't already consuming the product or service or who are already "overserved"? In this case, the answer is yes. The typical bootcamp customer already has a bachelor's degree and about six years of work experience, none as a programmer. Bootcamp training gives them access to a new industry. Likewise, for students already on a tech track in higher ed, bootcamps give them a faster, cheaper route. Also, employers can send employees through bootcamps to pick up needed skills fairly rapidly, unlike what they could get from colleges or universities.

Second, is the service "not as good" as what's already available, according to "historical measures of performance?" Again, yes. Bootcamps can't compete against colleges on things like faculty salaries or research spending, and don't have other trappings such as sports arenas or clubs. Likewise, they're unaccredited, which means they can't issue degrees, nor can they receive federal financial aid funds.

Third, is the innovation "simpler to use, more convenient or more affordable"? Here, the Institute said, "Mostly." Bootcamps have a straightforward goal: to help their graduates find decent jobs where they can use their new tech skills. "The bootcamp offering is shorter, clearer and generally more streamlined than a traditional college degree," as the report noted. Timewise, bootcamps are more intensive because they have a shorter duration, which could mean they're also less convenient to working people and people with family care challenges. On the other hand, their start schedule is much more frequent throughout the year, which means students aren't locked into a fall-spring-summer cycle for learning. Finally, while the cost is actually fairly close to that of a four-year degree when broken out on a monthly basis and federal funding isn't available, private loan companies have entered the market to cover the cost of tuition and some camps allow students to cover their tuition by paying a fixed portion of their income for a specific period after they've graduated.

Fourth, is there a sustainable business model? The answer is yes. They have a clear value proposition, the report stated, and they teach in-demand skills, have flexibility in who they hire as faculty and where they convene classes, and most work closely with employers to stay on top of needed course offerings. These lean, scalable operations them more likely to be profitable.

Fifth, do the existing providers view the new innovation like an irritant rather than a true threat? Mostly, the Institute said. Because the typical camper already has a degree, colleges and universities don't view bootcamps as taking away from their own "target market." A small number of institutions have set up programs with bootcamps to deliver their instruction on campus as non-credit offerings, and a few — such as Northeastern University and Cuyahoga Community College — have built their own bootcamps to reach adult learners.

Sixth, does the offering have technology that allows it to "improve and move upmarket"? For bootcamps, the tech "enablers," as the report called them, are online learning and online work portfolios. Some programs are entirely online, while others offer both online and in-person courses. The online presence allows them "to operate on a national scale without the costs and logistics of operating physical space," the report noted. And those portfolios of projects give clear evidence of the skills picked up by the student.

What do these add up to for bootcamps? According to Research Associate Richard Price and Senior Research Fellow Alana Dunagan, there are five possible ways bootcamps could influence traditional higher ed:

  • They could "get stuck" through diminishing employer interest or regulatory pressure and have no influence at all;
  • Federal funds could open up access to the bootcamps, which could be a "boon" for the camps themselves, as well as potential students and employers;
  • The camps could try to grow into new areas of lifelong learning, such as corporate training, which is already a crowded market;
  • They could reach beyond tech into other fast-changing fields, such as healthcare or financial services; and
  • Bootcamps could "reshape higher ed" altogether, especially through the combination of an emphasis on new fields, lifelong learning and outcomes-based federal funding help.

How should the "traditional" schools respond? One "foolproof" suggestion: "to invest in new business models through autonomous units," as Northeastern has done. The hard part of that, the Institute pointed out, is that as the pressure grows, leaders of those schools need to be prepared to stomach investment in the disruptive model "at the expense of the traditional model."

The full report is available on the Christensen Institute website.

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