Last week in fear mongering: No, the state isn’t shutting down coding bootcamps



Last week VentureBeat broke the news that the California Department of Consumer Affairs “seeks to shut down ‘learn to code’ bootcamps” which are now “fighting for survival.” Aside from the rather inflammatory headline and lead, it was excellent coverage.

Unfortunately, in the era of 140 character analysis, it appears not many read the fine print. Silicon Valley has such a knee jerk reaction to government regulation that it didn’t take long for follow-up reports to adopt similarly panicked tones. A sampling of headlines: “California threatens to shut down coding bootcamps,” ”California cracks down on computer boot camps,” ”California Coding Camps May Be Shut Down.”

Only one problem: It’s not true. In fact, although the Department of Consumer Affairs sent strongly worded cease-and-desist letters to these bootcamps, it has no intention of shutting them down.

The Deputy Director of Communications for the DCA, Russ Heimerich, made it clear to every reporter who called him that the coding bootcamps were last on the bureau’s list of priorities. “There’s other institutions where much more consumer harm is being done than what [they’re] doing,” Heimerich says. “What we can tell them is, ‘If you’re making a good faith effort we have bigger fish to fry.’”

In other words, although it’s technically illegal for the coding bootcamps to operate without being licensed, the DCA will leave them alone as long as they start the licensing application process.

Once you delve deeper into the articles, that information becomes clear.

Unfortunately, nuance does not make for an eye-grabbing story, and the inflammatory headlines spiraled into to-be-expected social media freak-outs, with dire declarations like “Our overlords are at it again” “an example of govt at it worst” and “Bizarre California” and “What is this madness,” from the likes of a16z’s Margit Wennmachers and Marc Andreessen, among many others. Their anger was understandable, if misplaced. News outlets lit inaccurate fires under everyone’s buns.

Take a breather guys. Grab the nearest paper bag, and calm that panic attack. Yes, the government is stepping in to do its job — regulate — but it’s not nearly as bad as you think. There was a handful of misinformation reported, from The AP to Inside Higher Education. Let’s get our facts straight.

First and foremost, schools like Hackbright Academy and Dev Bootcamp don’t have to shut down and wait six months for approval before reopening. Students aren’t going to get kicked out of classes they paid $ 15,000 for. As long as these programs go through the application process, which costs $ 5,000, and meet the standards, they’re safe.

Secondly, much to-do was made of the “onerous” and “straight-laced” requirements the government would make on these bootcamps, causing them to “[fight] for survival.”

Some outlets reported that faculty would need to have bachelor’s degrees to teach. Others said there would be a six month application process to change any curriculum.

Those requirements don’t exist.

“Again, we are a consumer protection agency and not an educational accreditation agency,” Heimerich says. “We’re making sure the coding academies do what they say they’re going to do. We’re not going to set education parameters or what the curriculum should be.”

In practice, what will that look like for the coding schools? Unlike some reports, coding school faculty won’t need bachelor’s degrees and three years of teaching experience. Instead: “We make sure the faculty is adequate for what they’re teaching. We’re not going to let a computer scientist teach nursing,” Heimerich explains.

The BPPE, Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education, is the branch of the DCA that regulates private post secondary schools that cost over $ 2,500 and have an actual physical presence in California. It only requires bachelor’s degrees from instructors when the company itself is a degree program that awards bachelor’s to students. Coding bootcamps don’t fall into that category.

Furthermore, unlike Inside Higher Education’s understanding, programs do not have to “run any change in curriculum by the agency, and that approval may take up to six months.” Coding bootcamp founders were understandably concerned about such a mandate, with Dev Bootcamp’s Shereef Bishay telling the publication, “We change our curriculum every three weeks, and we can’t teach technology that’s six months old.”

Breathe easy Bishay. The Department of Consumer Affairs’ Heimerich explains how curriculum changes work:

If they want to offer a new program or a new degree program they would need to update their catalogue. There is no six months wait… An additional program at a school is usually a very quick process… Now if they were to go and add auto mechanics to the course of instruction, that’s a substantive change and we’d have to go through and make sure they meet the requirements under the law. Six months is the outside time frame. But if they’re making non substantive changes, like going from coding to robotics, all that requires is a notification.

Here’s what the the Department of Consumer Affairs’ regulation does require. It requires an extensive application, with information like the enrollment agreement, acceptable performance fact sheets and financial aid practices and disclosures. It requires a compliance inspection, where the DCA makes sure the program does what it says it does.

“If they say, ‘We have 100 percent placement rate,’ well we know that’s probably not true. You have to be able to back that up with facts and figures,” Heimerich says. “We require them to be accurate.”

The catalogue has to reflect the educational program and the enrollment agreement needs to meet legal standards so students don’t sign away certain rights. Essentially, the DCA wants to make sure the coding camps don’t scam their students.

A bit of a pain in the ass for the coding bootcamps? Sure. Annoying to have a regulator watching over their shoulders? Yeap. But worth it to ensure people aren’t spending thousands of dollars for programs that promise the world and don’t deliver? Absolutely.

At the end of the day, for all of government’s lethargy, red tape, bullshit, and whatever else you want to charge it with, the Department of Consumer Affairs’ job is to, you know, protect consumers’ affairs. And in the case of these bootcamps, which charge almost a year of college tuition for their two month programs, government oversight is not such a bad idea.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman for Pandodaily]