- Boot camps carry at least the potential to disrupt higher education and force colleges to consolidate, according to a new report from the Clayton Christensen Institute, a nonpartisan think tank named for the Harvard University professor who developed a theory of disruptive innovation.
- These short-term, skills-based programs have an advantage by addressing "overserved demographics with a product that is arguably inferior to traditional degrees — but one that is also simpler and cheaper," the authors note.
- They outline five possible scenarios: the programs stall and fail to shake up higher ed; the federal government opens up Title IV money, possibly through an outcomes-based funding model; boot camps expand into lifelong learning; the programs take on skills-based subjects beyond tech; and they "achieve breadth and depth, and widespread disruption."
The report's authors, Christensen Institute researchers Alana Dunagan and Richard Price, argue boot camps offer a stripped-down version of education and skills training that is more affordable than traditional institutions, partly because they provide neither general education nor a residential experience. "[B]ootcamps have a straightforward and simple value proposition: they are designed to help their graduates find good jobs," the pair write.
To date, boot camps have focused mostly on high-salary tech fields, such as software and website development.
Just as there are opportunities for boot camps to expand, there are ways they could go "off-track," the authors write. Some possible fates are beyond the sector's control, such as the health of the economy. Higher unemployment rates could mean companies "revert to demanding degrees" from job applicants, reducing the value of the type of short-term credentials boot camps provide, which are typically unaccredited. The authors also note it is "not inevitable that the bootcamp value proposition will make sense in every field," especially those in which salaries aren't high enough to offset the cost of attendance.
Growth in boot camps could also be undone by the expansion of poor-quality programs should Title IV money be unlocked. The sector relies on financing sources such as employer funding and income share agreements. Regulators could also shut the enterprise down, which the authors note is unlikely, without explaining what may trigger such an outcome.
In a best case for boot camps, they would branch out into fields beyond tech, establish pathways for lifelong learning and be widely accepted by employers, leading to declines in traditional degree programs. That result could be "amplified" by access to federal student aid under an outcomes-based arrangement, the authors write.
As it stands now, the sector is growing. Course Report estimated enrollment in boot camps would increase 20% in 2018 to an estimated 20,316 students while generating $219.9 million in tuition revenue. Since 2013, the number of graduates of in-person boot camps has grown 748% to more than 18,000 in 2018. Online programs, which Course Report began tracking in 2017, are growing, too, graduating 1,846 students in 2018 compared to 677 students the year before.
Still, the industry is small. About 270 boot camps offered some 1,400 programs as of June 2017, with three-quarters of those programs based in the U.S. and Canada or online, according to a report released earlier this year from RTI International. One provider, General Assembly, offered 11% of the programs.
Traditional universities haven't entirely ignored the trend, however. Late last year, Harvard and Yale universities said they would start offering coding boot camps aimed at students in tech and the liberal arts. The Ivy League schools worked with boot camp specialists to do so — Yale with Flatiron School and Harvard with Trilogy Education Services. Others, including Northeastern University, are developing their own programs.
The early growth among boot camps has been sobered by closures of large providers in the last few years. Acquisitions have further changed the field. Earlier this month, online program manager 2U bought Trilogy for $750 million in cash and shares. And in March, for-profit college operator Bridgepoint Education, which more recently rebranded as Zovio, bought Fullstack Academy for $17.5 million cash plus shares in Bridgepoint.