Why Northeastern University Got Into the Bootcamp Business

Why Northeastern University Got Into the Bootcamp Business


David MacEachern was itching to leave his job in sales and move into a role in data analytics, but he kept getting stuck in the interview process. “I didn’t know how to speak the language of exact tools,” he says. He knew the ins and outs of Excel, but when SQL—a programming language used to access databases—came up in conversation, he was fuzzy on details. Finally MacEachern, who’s 30 years old and holds a bachelor’s degree in sociology, took a leap of faith and enrolled in the inaugural class of a bootcamp-style program in data analytics at Northeastern University.

MacEachern, now a data analyst at Ellevation Education, a Boston-based software platform for English-Language Learners, credits his career pivot to the skills he learned in the crash course. Skills-training bootcamps have sprung up in urban centers across the U.S. to help meet demand for tech talent, but in most cases these immersive courses in fields including web development and user experience operate outside of traditional universities. Northeastern’s Level, the data analytics program that MacEachern completed, shows how higher-ed institutions might benefit by taking a page from the skills-bootcamp playbook.

“As a result of our program, the rest of Northeastern is realizing the demand for tech-biased, shorter, experiential and industry-aligned learning,” says Nick Ducoff, who leads an incubator at the university that tests new models of education. The data analytics bootcamp is just the beginning. Northeastern is scaling this program and adding more, including a marketing analytics immersive course this fall.

Data Differentiator

Northeastern offered the first Level program in Boston in fall 2015 and has expanded it to three other locations: Charlotte, Seattle and Silicon Valley. The two-month, full-time bootcamp costs students $7,995, and 50 have completed it so far. This summer students will be able to enroll part-time at the Boston campus, for a 20-week course with online classes and in-person sessions one night a week and five weekend days.

While most skills-training bootcamps, of which there are now about 70 across the U.S., focus on coding, a data analytics curriculum like Level’s is less common. Bootcamp providers including Galvanize and General Assembly offer intensive programs in data science, but Level is geared toward a broader group of people who don’t necessarily have a PhD in their title, says Parul Singh, an instructor at Level. “The field of data analytics has more jobs than data science. There are a lot of opportunities that require breadth, not depth.” Beyond obvious applications in industries like finance, healthcare and retail, data skills are in demand across a growing number of fields and disciplines. “Even in digital humanities, to do work in sociology and psychology you need analytics.”

Why Go It Alone?

Ducoff came to Northeastern as vice president for new ventures in May 2014 after serving as vice president at Boundless Learning, a Boston-based edtech company in the textbook industry that was acquired by Valore in 2015. At Northeastern, he’s charged with creating new opportunities and revenue streams that support the school’s strategic growth and expansion.

Ducoff says he’d been watching the bootcamp space evolve and began having conversations with leaders at some of the existing providers. He realized Northeastern was uniquely positioned to offer its own. The private research university with a student body of nearly 20,000 emphasizes “experiential learning”—its cooperative education program integrates classroom study with professional experience. Bootcamps generally measure success by helping students land jobs in their fields of study, and Northeastern has an enviable Rolodex of industry contacts.

MacEachern says the university’s connections weighed heavily in his decision to be a guinea pig in the first Level cohort. “Northeastern has great networks, unlike a coding bootcamp that’s just getting off the ground.” As part of the program, he worked on a capstone project with his current employer, using the company’s data to identify variables that affect how much time a student may spend in an ELL program.

Northeastern’s resources and name recognition were also a factor in deciding to go the bootcamp route alone, at least for now, according to Ducoff. “We have the full faith and backing of a world-class research university,” he says, adding that Level relies on the university for legal, branding and HR support.

Students in the upcoming Level cohort will get another benefit from Northeastern: career coaches. They’ll receive one-on-one mentorship about professional development from counselors who work at the university.

Next Level

Northeastern isn't the only higher-ed institution with a bootcamp of its own—Rutgers University launched a coding bootcamp last fall—but Ducoff says it's still early days for these types programs. Northeastern is quickly growing its offerings. In the fall it will launch a bootcamp in marketing analytics, which Singh is currently helping design.

Ducoff says the idea is to make these experiences “stackable.” Students who complete the data analytics course, for example, could add to their expertise with follow-up programs that go deeper into specific fields. Taken in succession these courses could lead a student toward a career in data science, where jobs often require a PhD or, at the very least, more than a couple months of training. One-quarter to one-third of students who graduated from Level indicated in an exit survey that they’d be interested in earning a master’s in data science at some point.

Level students currently earn a certificate upon completion and most who enroll already have a bachelor’s or master’s degree, but Ducoff says his team is working to make the bootcamp experience available to students who are still in school. “It’s our goal for Level to be articulated into credit.”

Northeastern is also thinking about how to make the data analytics course materials accessible to a wider range of students. Currently those accepted into the program have at least some familiarity with the subject matter, and they can afford to spend the time and money to earn their certificate. Ducoff says his team is in talks with cities and states about developing an introductory course that would leverage some of Level’s curriculum and serve as a primer for the more rigorous program in data analytics. “I can’t wait to find a candidate who only has a GED,” Ducoff says.

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