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The Un-College That's Training $100,000 App Developers

LA Johnson

Our Ideas series is exploring how innovation happens in education.

As one of the biggest, most successful tech companies, Google can hire pretty much anyone it wants.

Accordingly, the company tends to favor Ph.D.s from Stanford and MIT. But, it has just partnered with a for-profit company called General Assembly to offer a series of short, noncredit courses for people who want to learn how to build applications for Android, Google's mobile platform. Short, as in just 12 weeks from novice to employable.

This is just one of a slew of big announcements this fall coming out of a peculiar, fast-growing corner of the higher education world: the coder bootcamp. This is really an entire new industry within higher ed that's grown up in about five years.

Jake Schwartz, CEO of General Assembly, sees his company as providing a new alternative for the skills gap.
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Jake Schwartz, CEO of General Assembly, sees his company as providing a new alternative for the skills gap.

Bootcamps are designed to teach cutting-edge technical skills like being a Web developer or a mobile-app developer. Charging between $10,000 and $20,000 for tuition, with no previous experience required, in the course of just three to six months they promise to make participants highly employable in a lucrative and fast-growing industry.

As the industry grows, there are still a lot of unanswered questions, notably about ensuring quality and honesty in reporting of statistics like job placement. (A recent survey by an organization calledCourse Report says 66 percent of bootcamp graduates are employed in a related field and that they experienced a 38 percent salary bump on average.)

Still, the sector has attracted attention not just from major employers like Google, but from startup private education lenders, the big for-profit education companies and, not surprisingly, from regulators within the Department of Education as well.

For more thoughts on the future of tech-skills education and skills training more generally, I called up Jake Schwartz, CEO of General Assembly — one of the emerging leaders in this new sector.

Schwartz didn't expect to go into the education business, much less start "a global educational institution." In 2011, he and co-founders Adam Pritzker, Matthew Brimer and Brad Hargreaves opened a co-working space in Manhattan, where startup companies could rent desk space and share resources and networking opportunities.

To help pay the rent, they started holding workshops at night on topics like Web design. Today they have 14 campuses in seven countries.

How did the new collaboration with Google arise? What are they getting out of this?

Android is one of the fastest growing platforms in the world — they have a billion users worldwide. We released a jobs report this summer with Burning Glassshowing that demand for mobile developers has grown by over 150 percent in the last five years. I'm pumped that Google wanted to do this with us.

How heavily involved was Google in helping you develop these programs?

They made introductions, offered input on best practices, collaborated on the curriculum and contributed devices for students to use. And I expect they'll continue to be involved and to offer networking opportunities to students.

So, this makes me think of how, in a previous generation, a community college may have helped trained welders to work in the local factory. Do you all see yourselves as the technical-skills providers for a new industry and a new generation?

This is not a new idea — I'm sure Detroit was filled with these kinds of programs back in the day. GE and AT&T had their own college campuses where new hires and employees would spend weeks at a time. They were making massive investments in training. And as average employee tenure went down, these investments also decreased.

We focus on the students first, but we see this as a two-sided market, addressing the needs of both companies and employees.

Right, and let me make clear that your program isn't training people to work directly for Google, necessarily. Android developers instead work for companies making apps that use Google's Android operating system. You call it an ecosystem.

Yes. The No. 1 thing they hear from their developer network is, I need more developers!

So for Google it's a great opportunity to do stuff for that ecosystem and build their platform at the same time.

Anything that brings the employers and corporate ecosystem closer to educators is a positive thing.

So, now that the job market is more competitive, more loosely joined, and more entrepreneurial than it was in the past, you see yourselves as helping close the skills gap? And that's a role that might have been filled by a public institution previously?

Very few people out there are asking the companies what they want. U.S. companies spend about $200 billion a year on talent acquisition and training. That's more than the $134 billion that the federal government spends for student aid.

Speaking of student aid, the Department of Education recently announced that it will be making short-term programs like yours eligible for student loans and Pell Grants, and that people will be able to take them for college credit, through partnerships with existing universities. How is General Assembly moving forward with this idea?

We've been doing all sorts of partnerships with forward-thinking institutions: with Colgate University, Wharton Business School, the New School. We have a bunch in the pipeline. I would put them all in the experimental stage — I don't think we've landed on a single model yet.

What I love generally is, most institutions that are talking to us realize that they need to serve their students. It's part of the value proposition that enables them to compete and differentiate in the 21st century.

What really strikes me about what you guys are doing is that, when we think of innovation and the role of technology in higher education, most of the time people think about online education, predictive analytics and other gadgets. But the innovation represented by programs like General Assembly is different: It's because the tech industry imposes the need for people to update skills so quickly that you've created this model that is as fast as possible — which means being face to face, having a low student-teacher ratio — and that works so closely with industry to update curricula and offerings as fast as needed.

You nailed it.

And you've also grown by marketing directly to the student, who pays retail, instead of traditional higher education, which has lots of other stakeholders and payers involved, like lenders and the federal government.

I'm really hoping and pushing and making a lot of moves to hopefully innovate on the model in higher ed, to create better, more sustainable solutions that don't call in all the weird perverse incentives and bizarre power dynamics.

Can you give an example?

We want to objectively report all our numbers: How much people paid and how they did in the job market. It's such a good way of not manipulating the potential indicators of risk and reward.

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Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.