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Hardly a scandalous admission: the future of bootcamps could be disruptive

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May 23, 2019

Since March, the college admissions bribery scandal has featured prominently in the news. Americans have been outraged at the prospect of wealth and influence overriding merit and mobility. For students and employers, in particular, it also raises the question of why a prestigious degree should carry so much weight, to the point of spawning a multi-million dollar corruption racket, when it isn’t even clear what that degree says about a student’s abilities in the first place.  

In the meantime, projections for unrelenting expansion of the increasingly influential technology sector—perhaps the sector that cares the least about prestige and the most about concrete skills—feed a persistent fear that traditional higher education won’t generate enough graduates with the abilities to meet the demands of a 21st century economy.

As questions about traditional institutions multiply, both regarding their value and their values, bootcamps have emerged as a compelling counterpoint in the prestige versus skills debate. These short-course, tech-focused training programs are unaccredited, and less comprehensive and prestigious than traditional degree programs—yet despite their small market share, bootcamps potentially could have a disruptive impact on traditional higher education.

Bootcamps are a threat to traditional college, but face threats of their own

Despite that disruptive potential, the success of bootcamps is not guaranteed. There are a few possible ways that bootcamps could go off-track, including macroeconomic factors that limit the acceptance of alternative credentials, challenges in addressing industries beyond technology, and the—albeit unlikely—possibility that regulators shut down the market altogether.

The first major risk to the bootcamp model has to do with the economic cycle. The current success of bootcamp graduates in finding jobs has demonstrated that employers, at least in the tech industry and in the current labor market, are open to non-degree credentials. If macroeconomic factors shift and labor markets loosen up, employers may revert to demanding degrees. This would lower the value of bootcamp training and slow the growth of the model.

Another potential pitfall could be an inability to address a market beyond tech. A premise of the bootcamp model is that bootcamps can convert employers’ job requirements into concrete, teachable skills, developing and delivering learning experiences accordingly. Doing so in fields outside of the technology sector, where job requirements may be less codified/quantifiable, will require continuous innovation, and it is not inevitable that bootcamps succeed.

A third—unlikely but possible—obstacle to bootcamps’ disruptive trajectory is regulation. To date, the regulatory pressure faced by bootcamps has been limited to some states requiring bootcamps to register with their higher education authorities, but that could change.

Federal funding could be friend or foe

If bootcamps are able to navigate through those obstacles, a variable that could make or break the growth trajectory of the sector is the potential availability of federal funding. Whether that funding becomes available—and how—will determine not just the scale of the industry, but also bootcamps’ ability to address thorny issues around equity and quality.  

Unlike traditional higher education, which is buoyed by well over $100 billion of federal government subsidy, the bootcamp market currently operates without government funding. This limits whom bootcamps can serve, but has also forced the industry to develop an outcomes-oriented value proposition.

Interest in these models has spurred proposals to extend federal funding to alternative credential providers. Access to federal dollars would offer the industry a huge pool of cash that could considerably and immediately bring more students into the bootcamp space. However, merely extending the existing input-driven Title IV regime would likely allow low-quality, enrollment-driven programs to scale, as it has in traditional higher education.

An outcomes-based funding model, on the other hand, could give a much more diverse set of students access to bootcamps, without disincentivizing bootcamps’ laser focus on moving students into the workforce. This could fuel innovation along a disruptive path, which would be a boon for bootcamps, students, and employers alike.

Lifelong learning & the world beyond coding: where do bootcamps go next?

Beyond looking to increase enrollments, many bootcamps are actively exploring ways to expand their curricular offerings, both longitudinally and laterally. After all, like all companies, bootcamps are motivated to sustainably maximize their impact and, in the case of for-profit bootcamps, increase profits.

The lifelong learning market holds promise for bootcamps, not only because it offers more training opportunities, but also because it increasingly involves partnering with universities and employers, which drives down learner acquisition costs. Employers already invest considerable resources in internal learning and training efforts, and have demonstrated a willingness to work with bootcamps, such as L’Oréal hiring General Assembly to train 7,000 employees on digital marketing skills. Many bootcamps are thus shifting more resources toward this market.

As markets like coding and web development become saturated, bootcamps will be motivated to continue moving into new industries, with healthcare and finance as potential targets. Doing so will require identifying favorable labor market dynamics and codifying field-specific competencies in those industries, which we noted as an innovation challenge earlier. It seems inevitable that some of these new fields will start to encroach on territories typically associated with traditional institutions and the liberal arts.

Here’s what college presidents should be losing sleep over

If bootcamps succeed in innovating their way into new fields at the entry-level, as well as establishing lifelong learning pathways for each of them, bootcamps could displace college as the default pathway into high-value jobs. Should outcomes-based federal financial aid become available to the bootcamp market, growth of the bootcamp model would be amplified.

As the admissions scandal sordidly highlights, traditional higher education’s obsession with prestige can drive an unhealthy “whatever it takes to get in” mindset. Universities continue upping the ante, devoting billions to dazzling campus amenities designed to attract elite, full-pay students.

In contrast, bootcamps are designing and building a nimble, pared-down model that could serve a much larger and more diverse market. If they succeed, they can change not only tomorrow’s headlines, but the higher education landscape as well.

For more on the fate of higher ed bootcamps, read the report “Betting on bootcamps: How short-course training programs could change the landscape of higher ed.

As a research fellow on the Christensen Institute's higher education team, Richard helps investigate novel business models in postsecondary education, professional development, and lifelong learning.