Who’s Holding Coding Bootcamp Accountability Accountable?

Workforce Training

Who’s Holding Coding Bootcamp Accountability Accountable?

By Sydney Johnson     Oct 20, 2017

Who’s Holding Coding Bootcamp Accountability Accountable?

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

When it comes to reporting graduation and job-placement rates, the numbers don’t always add up at for-profit coding bootcamps.

That showed this week when New York-based Flatiron School, a coding bootcamp, was fined $375,000 by the state’s attorney general for misleading advertising and operating without a license.

Flatiron is hardly the first bootcamp to come under fire for falsely advertising its outcomes. What makes this a particularly ironic case, though, is that Flatiron is part of the Quality Assurance Taskforce, a consortium of 25 organizations that include non-profit universities, investors and coding bootcamps and has a stated goal “to drive industry-wide accountability and transparency” for non-traditional learning providers.

So Flatiron’s violation, and accompanying slap on the wrist, begs the question: Who is holding self-regulating quality assurance groups accountable?

If you ask Clare McCann, deputy director for federal higher-education policy at New America, the answer is simple: nobody.

“Right now, a few people are holding the bootcamps and providers accountable,” she says. “But I think no one is holding the quality assistance entities out there accountable.”

The scrutiny Flatiron faced around its advertising this week isn’t uncommon for the industry. In 2016, Bloomberg reported that the Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education, which oversees coding schools in California, suspended a bootcamp called Coding House for “numerous violations of California law, including making false statements.” The punishment came along with a $50,000 penalty.

Coding House reportedly advertised a “95 percent hiring rate within two months of graduation from the academy,” according to Bloomberg. Similarly, Flatiron claimed a 98.5 percent employment rate on its website before reaching a settlement with New York’s Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

Concerns around misleading advertising and violations in the bootcamp industry led to the creation of two major groups to root out potential issues and safeguard the industry’s reputation.

One is the Council on Integrity in Results Reporting, a nonprofit made up of 13 coding bootcamps that formed out of the Skills Fund, a lender to bootcamp students. That group announced a set of standards in March and its partner schools have each since released their outcomes data, which must be verified by a third-party.

Then there’s the Quality Assurance Taskforce, a group spearheaded by higher-ed consulting firm Entangled Solutions that is currently underway with a set of its own “quality assurance” standards for how higher-ed programs, including coding bootcamps, must report and market their student outcomes.

The two bodies share similar goals around improving bootcamp reporting and—in some cases—members.

Too Good to Be True?

Regardless, Flatiron’s membership in an accountability program didn’t render it immune from its own violations and a resulting inquiry by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

“Coding bootcamps have become popular as students seek careers in the tech industry, but for-profit coding schools must comply with state requirements, including obtaining a license before operating,” Schneiderman said in a prepared statement. “Schools must also provide clear explanations of advertised job placement rates and salary claims of their graduates.”

The state’s settlement charged that the school came to its 98.5 percent employment claim by lumping together not only full-time positions, but contract work, freelance work and individuals who were employed for less than 12 weeks (i.e. in an internship).

Flatiron touts itself as one of the first bootcamps to release a comprehensive report on its graduate outcomes. That report, which was overseen by third-party auditors, breaks down the employment data by program and designates percentages for how many students found full- or part-time jobs.

The problem was that Flatiron extracted the advertised 98.5 percent employment rate figure from the larger data set.

“The Attorney General’s office found nothing wrong with the data in our outcomes reports,” Jennifer Burner Barden, a spokesperson for Flatiron, wrote in an email. “While they agree that our independently audited jobs reports properly disclose the full methodology for calculating these figures—and explicitly allow us to use them going forward—they have asked us to more clearly label those disclosures on our website.”

While the full report didn’t undergo scrutiny from the attorney general, McCann says “you can make [any data] tell you what you want them to if you torture them enough.”

Robert Shireman, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a think tank focusing on for-profit education, adds that it is “misleading to throw out a single number for the value of a school. It's just not that simple. There is never a placement rate that is a single fraction.”

Though one of the intentions of the standards is to prevent false reporting, Michael Horn, a principal consultant at Entangled Ventures, defends the group by saying the task force’s finalized standards are still under review.

“No one has put the standards in place yet—we are still putting the finishing touches on the final version,” he said.

McCann says regardless of the unofficial guidelines underway at the Task Force, Flatiron—and other bootcamps—are beholden to the letter and spirit of the law. “You can’t go around making false claims because no one told you not to do that,” she said. “At the end of the day it’s sort of a cop-out.”

McCann is cautiously optimistic about the initiative shown by the industry and its stated intentions, but warns that it may not be enough to prevent another case of false advertising, especially since participation is voluntary. “At the end of the day there is a role for actual regulation, and [self-regulation] is not going to be sufficient,” she said.

One idea that has been suggested as an alternative is to have the federal government designate accreditors to provide oversight. But that comes with its own problems, Shireman said. For instance, “there is massive political pressure for bad accreditors to continue to provide access [to colleges],” he said. “The ones that are a conduit for federal money end up relaxing their standards because the consequences of not approving a school is so severe.”

As other regulatory requirements and reporting standards shake out, McCann said what seems to be clear is the need for better law enforcement and policy to both protect the industry’s reputation and the students it purports to serve.

The quality assurance groups and states issuing licenses to bootcamps, said McCann, “need to be on high alert in terms of making sure they are convinced these programs are providing adequate education benefits to students.”

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