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December 1st, 2017

On a summer day in June of 2016, executives from different code schools met at the W Hotel in Austin for a meeting that spanned several days.

That these competitors were all in the same room together was unusual. But they had gathered for an important reason. They wanted to see if there was a way to agree on a standard way of reporting how well their students do after graduation.

They were fearful of repeating the mistakes of the for-profit education industry, which had developed a reputation for saddling students with lots of debt and few job prospects. Code schools wanted to be proactive about policing themselves.

“We’re all making claims about our outcomes, but it’s not really clear what the basis of those claims are and it’s impossible to compare schools,” said Michael Kaiser-Nyman, who is the owner of a Portland-based code school called Epicodus and was in attendance at that meeting. “For most of us, it wasn’t a very hard sell that we, as an industry, can do better than we are, in terms of helping students understand what expectations to have.”

Coding schools are emerging in cities throughout America, promising jobs to its graduates in the lucrative tech industry. These schools, which teach programming languages and other tech skills, are concentrated in places like Austin that harbor a large tech industry.

Jay Janner/American-Statesman staffCoding students Mark Valentine, left, and Jake Lee work on a project at Hack Reactor on Nov. 30, 2017.  

In Central Texas, hundreds of people each year are enrolling in for-profit code schools to gain a foothold in the tech industry, according to data provided by the schools and the state.

RELATED: Code schools can be lifeline for those with ‘no options,’ Austin grads say

Typically, tech workers earn about twice the salary of the average Austin worker, according to data from CompTIA, a nonprofit trade group for the tech industry.

Enrollment can be pricey, ranging from $2,000 for part-time courses to $14,000 for full-time bootcamps, which typically run 10 or 12 weeks. Because these schools don’t accept federal student loans, students who can’t pay their tuition up-front often take out private loans.

But it has been nearly impossible for prospective code school students to comparison shop among code schools to determine which has the best track record at placing students in the tech industry. Different code schools report their results differently, and some won’t offer job placement data at all.

In Texas, schools are required to submit data about the type of jobs students land and how well they are paid to the Texas Workforce Commission. But that data is difficult to access and incomplete.

Emergence of code schools

Code schools began to emerge around 2012 in cities like San Francisco and New YorkCompanies couldn’t hire software developers fast enough, and stagnant middle class wages meant more people were considering a career in tech as the best way to improve their income.

In the past five years, at least seven for-profit code schools have opened in Austin, mirroring national trends that show a stratospheric growth of coding schools. (Though two schools have since closed.) Course Report data shows that 23,000 students are estimated to attend code schools in 2017, up more than 240 percent since 2014. City or state-level data wasn’t available.

In Austin, the first code school on the scene was Maker Square in 2013.

“We were the first coding school in Texas for about a year before some of the other code schools moved to town,” said Harsh Patel, a co-founder of Maker Square. “At the time, nothing (like this) existed. You had to go get a four-year degree if you wanted to become a software engineer.”

Maker Square’s office was at 7th and Congress downtown, and Patel said the school’s founders spread the word by going to tech meetups and marketing at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival.

“We had to overcome this hurdle — people not knowing the concept and it being such a brand new thing,” Patel said. It sounded almost too good to be true, he said, when you pitch to someone that you can get a high-paying well-paid job in the tech industry after only spending a few months in a classroom.

Maker Square’s first class was 28 students who paid $8,000 each. (The school offered a $2,000 scholarship to women who enrolled). There weren’t many lenders catering to code school students yet, Patel said, so everyone paid in cash.

Jay Janner/American-Statesman staffCoding students Joe Strandmo, left, and Kendrick Gardner work on a project at Hack Reactor on Nov. 30, 2017.

It wasn’t long before other code schools saw an opportunity in Austin and swooped in.

Currently there are five traditional code schools operating in Austin: Galvanize, General Assembly, Austin Coding Academy, Hack Reactor (which used to be Maker Square) and a coding boot camp run through the University of Texas’ continuing education program. Iron Yard and Dev Bootcamp closed their Austin campuses earlier this year as part of a nationwide shutdown.

(Schools such as Cyber-Tex and ConsultingSolutions.Net were not counted as a “code school” because they tend to focus on traditional IT training or target people who already have jobs.)

Paul Gleger, senior regional director for General Assembly, said the code school opened an Austin location because “it’s a very strong community in the tech and design world.”

“Everything from SXSW to major companies are making Austin their home base,” Gleger said. “You have IBM with a large presence, you have Home Depot with their innovation arm, you have HomeAway and Whole Foods.”

Comparison shopping

For students, comparison shopping between code schools isn’t easy.

Code schools are not required required to disclose job outcome metrics in a uniform way.

Some, like the University of Texas’ coding boot camp, don’t publicly report any data at all on whether its students found jobs in the tech industry. Others do, but they tend to crunch the numbers differently, making it nearly impossible to have apples-to-apples comparisons.

For instance, General Assembly told the American-Statesman that, according to a report the school released last year, 99 percent of students who graduate from its Career Services program get jobs within six months. (About 76 of the school’s graduates participated in the Career Services program.) However, General Assembly doesn’t say what kind of jobs those students landed or what types of salaries they are earning. For instance, a student could have been hired by the code school itself, or could be working as an unpaid intern at a tech company.

Jay Janner/American-Statesman staffFrom left, coding students Ben Collins, Caleb Kress, Clay Smart, Joshua Pawlik, Cecilia Goss and Ross Salge work on projects at Hack Reactor on Nov. 30, 2017.  

The Texas Workforce Commission keeps a searchable online database that contains data about code schools. But the information available to students in that online database is incomplete. For instance, the most recent data was from the 2015-2016 school year. Several schools, including Austin Coding Academy and the now-closed Dev Bootcamp, have no data on graduation rates or job placement on the state’s website.

The handful of schools that did share this type of data, such as General Assembly, indicated that for some courses, only about 50 percent of the students were employed after graduation, though it’s not clear how much time after graduation the commission was measuring job placement. The commission did tell the American-Statesman that “by law, schools are required to maintain an employment rate of 60 percent or higher.”

It can depend on the course being taught, but code school graduates learning programming languages tend to secure jobs as software engineers or web developers.

Employers like Bazaarvoice said they have hired several code school graduates in Austin. Recruiter Alex Rittenberry said the company hires people in jobs such as implementation engineers and customer support managers — positions that require workers who know how to read code and spot bugs.

“These are folks that would have to be very client-facing and customer-service oriented,” Rittenberry said.

Self-policing?

The meeting at the W Hotel in Austin in the summer of 2016 helped cement a plan to develop a uniform way to report job placement numbers. It was organized by Skills Fund, an Austin-based lender that focuses on code schools.

“We all sat down and really just had a very passionate discussion,” Kaiser-Nyman said. “We were only there for a day-and-a-half and we hammered out the basic outlines for a framework.”

Some of the schools’ leaders agreed to create a group called the Council on Integrity in Results Reporting, which would publish job placement data twice a year on recent graduates of member code schools.

Patel, the co-founder of Maker Square (which was later re-named Hack Reactor), said his school joined because its leaders believe it’s important to be transparent with students about the potential to get a job in the tech industry.

“We wanted to publicize our statistics from the get-go,” he said, and he was concerned about other schools using misleading marketing language that made the whole industry look bad.

The Council on Integrity in Results Reporting is now a nonprofit run by Kaiser-Nyman. Earlier this year the group published job placement reports from its 13 schools member schools. Hack Reactor is the only school in Austin to participate.

Jay Janner/American-Statesman staffCoding students Cameron Malloy, left, and Tim Ninan work on projects at Hack Reactor on Nov. 30, 2017. 

Schools that belong to the Council on Integrity in Results Reporting have to reveal in-depth job placement data every six months, including how many students got jobs within three months and six months of graduation, and whether those jobs were full-time or part-time, the salaries of graduates and whether these jobs were related to what they went to school for.

For Hack Reactor, their data shows that within six months, 70 percent of their students had full-time jobs in the tech industry at a median salary of $71,000.

But for prospective students in Austin, it’s still difficult to comparison shop when only Hack Reactor belongs to CIRR. And not all the code schools agreed with the standards that the Council had embraced.

General Assembly’s leadership said they have chosen to be part of a different effort spearheaded by education consulting group Entangled Solutions, along with Galvanize, which also has a campus in Austin. The Quality Assurance Task Force also  wants to also create a nonprofit that will ensure schools adhere to accrediting standards, according to the Chicago Tribune.

“We appreciate that evaluating educational outcomes and quality is extraordinarily complex,” said Liz Simon, vice president of external affairs. We thought it was important for a group like this to bring together divergent perspective from a broader cross-section of education providers.”

Patel says he worries that the reputation of the code school industry will be tarnished if more schools don’t agree on a uniform set of standards.

“I will say this on the record,” Patel said. “I think it’s a good idea for every Austin code school to be part of CIRR.”

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