Nonprofit Bootcamps Want to Make Coding Accessible to Low-Income Learners

Digital Learning

Nonprofit Bootcamps Want to Make Coding Accessible to Low-Income Learners

By Sydney Johnson     Aug 18, 2017

Nonprofit Bootcamps Want to Make Coding Accessible to Low-Income Learners

This article is part of the guide: The Future of Coding Bootcamps.

One of the selling points that for-profit coding bootcamps boast is their stellar placement rates (with some boasting that as many as 100 percent of their students get jobs in the field after graduation). While some question those numbers, engineer Michelle Glauser sees a bigger problem. She says many of those bootcamps simply limit their enrollments to people who don’t need much more expertise to land a great job, in order to keep those numbers high.

“They seem to accept more and more advanced people,” Glauser says of the coding bootcamp she attended, Hackbright Academy. “Now they accept people who are either close to a CS degree or just don’t have a graduate degree,” she says. “That seems messed up to me.”

Glauser sees her story as different from many of those she saw in her bootcamp experience, and she decided to start her own bootcamp, based on her own experience. She entered Hackbright with almost no coding background—something she thinks is becoming more rare in the for-profit bootcamp industry—and with little funds to pay the school’s tuition, which today is $16,570. (Glauser says she and her partner decided to get married as a way to raise money for her to attend, via wedding-gift money.)

So she created Techtonica, a nonprofit coding bootcamp based in San Francisco that provides free tech training and job placement specifically for women and nonbinary people in the Bay Area.

She’s designing the program for folks who wouldn’t typically make it in the coding school she graduated from. “We only find our students through [coding] workshops we put on with other community organizations,” she says. “I didn’t want to do an open application because I feel like it would be the same people who already have connections and privilege.”

The program, which launched earlier this year, doesn’t require any background in tech from its applicants. It’s longer than most for-profit coding programs—six months, rather than the three or four common in the industry. Also unlike most bootcamp providers, Glauser is creating a business model where companies sponsor a student (to the tune of around $15,000), which covers both instructor costs and living stipends for students. Advocates also receive diversity training for their companies, and provide a mentor to the students in the program. Around the fifth month of the program, Glauser says the plan will be for mentors to get to know the students and recruit at least one for their company.

The 10 students that Techtonica is recruiting for its upcoming cohort don’t all yet have promises of employment from corporate partners—Glauser says three partners are on board so far—but her goal is to find a job placement for all of them by the end of the program. And later, to follow up and check in on how they are doing in their new work environment.

Techtonica is far from alone in its method of targeting a particular group that is underrepresented in tech, training them (notably, for free), and working with corporate partners to secure jobs and internships for its students.

For instance, MinedMinds, a coding bootcamp program out of Pennsylvania, aims to give former coal miners coding and computer skills. Cofounder Amanda Laucher says the idea for the program came out of “my brother [who] wanted to get a job in tech, but he couldn’t get a 4-year degree,” she says. “He also couldn’t leave his family to go to a big city and pay $12,000 to $20,000 in tuition for a bootcamp.”

So Laucher and her partner took it upon themselves to give him some basic coding skills. The trainings would grow to become their nonprofit, and she claims that around 80 percent of students who completed the MinedMinds programs landed jobs shortly afterwards. (Some programs MinedMinds helps facilitate are organized through outside institutions like community colleges or companies, making it difficult to track all graduation rates.)

MinedMinds teaches its cohorts skills in Java, CSS, SQL, and like Techtonica it is also free for students. The nonprofit also puts an emphasis on recruiting students who want a job in tech, but lack basic tech and coding skills. She says they purposefully don’t recruit students with a background in tech. “We don’t want to rule people out, we want to rule them in.”

Michael Street founded Black Men Code in Atlanta, Ga. with a similar challenge in mind. “For-profit companies need great outcomes in a short amount of time, so you see more skilled people when you come in.” He adds: “Taking 12 weeks off and paying $15,000 is a much higher risk.”

Street’s nonprofit works with institutions including several HBCUs to offer free tech training to college students in any discipline. Of the students he has worked with, 75 percent have been placed in internships.

Small steps

Street says working with a university—and avoiding a for-profit structure where the market demands quick, impressive job placement results—also lowers the risk attached to bringing in students with no prior experience.

“We believe that anyone has aptitude for computer science,” Street underlines. He says his model is a “night and day” difference from most for-profit bootcamps.

The stated mission of these nonprofit programs are improving economic conditions for people in their own areas. And while that might not reach as many people as a program with campuses across the country, Glauser thinks the small approach has big effects for those in local communities who are sidelined by bootcamp fees and application requirements.

“I’ve definitely seen improvement in diversity and inclusion in my five years as a software engineer,” she says. “There are more programs working on supporting underrepresented people, and the conversations about how to welcome diversity have become much more prevalent.”

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