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Colleges Launch Computer Coding ‘Boot Camps’ for Older Adults

Classes can help workers gain the skills to start new careers

Adults attending a computer class

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En español | Lisa Freedman, 62, always had a passion for making information accessible and for computer games. Then a bout with cancer four years ago led her to consider a career change. After many years working as a lawyer dealing with politicians who were a lot of talk and little action, she wanted to try creating something digitally, thinking “it would be really cool to actually have some part of me where I code something and I see the result of it.”

For Charles Dixon, over 40, the allure of wrapping his mind around buzzy “big data” was enough of a motivation to head back to the classroom, even with an MBA in hand and a career as an internal auditor for businesses.

Freedman and Dixon turned to coding boot camps, a growing sector of the education landscape that appeals to adults who have an interest in technology and want to bypass traditional college to boost their job and earning prospects. More than 23,000 students are expected to graduate from boot camps in 2019, a 49 percent growth over the 15,429 who graduated in 2018, according to Course Report. And universities across the nation increasingly offer these programs to adult learners and working professionals.

The popularity of boot camps is partly a response to the gradual shift in workforce training. Just as college degrees have largely replaced the high school diploma as a workforce necessity, continuous education is increasingly a requirement as new software programs and technologies emerge.

“You’re going to need more than a onetime inoculation of education and training; you need continuous booster shots of skilling and upskilling,” said Van Ton-Quinlivan, executive in residence at the Institute for the Future and former executive vice chancellor of Workforce & Digital Futures for the community college system of California.

At Rice University’s coding boot camps, about a quarter of the students to date are over 40, said David Vassar, assistant dean for professional and executive programs at the university’s Glasscock School of Continuing Studies in Houston, which houses boot camps in cybersecurity, financial technology and data analytics. At the University of Oregon’s Continuing and Professional Education school, about a fifth of students are over 40, though its first boot camp just began in January of this year.

Trilogy Education Services, a provider of coding boot camp instruction, has partnered with numerous universities in the past year, including Rice, where Dixon studied; Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore; the University of Oregon; Butler University in Indianapolis; and the University of Toronto, which is home to the boot camp Freedman completed. Thirty-nine such partnerships currently exist in the U.S., featuring classes of 20 to 30 students that last about six months and cost roughly $11,500. Because these are noncredit courses, they are not eligible for federal financial aid.

Dixon thought the price tag for the boot camp made enrolling a “no-brainer.” He had been considering master’s programs in data visualization and analytics that cost $50,000, required a two-year commitment and included coursework in business practices and statistics that he already learned for his MBA.

According to Trilogy, most of the students in the boot camps it offers have bachelor’s degrees; a third do not. Eighteen percent of its students are 40 and older.

Freedman, now cancer free, isn’t sure what level of education should be a prerequisite for the boot camp, though having tenacity can go a long way. “I think we only lost three people in our class, but you have to be committed because it subsumes you” for the months that you’re doing it. She and others described 20 to 30 hours of homework and projects in addition to the 10 weekly hours of in-person instruction spread across two weekdays and Saturdays.

William “Bill” Nash, 52, earned his bachelor of science degree in microbiology and molecular biology in 1992, with his pursuit of that degree temporarily put on hold while he served as a lab technician in a field hospital based in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War. The education served him well until mid-2018, when he was laid off after 20 years as a bio-informatics programmer at Washington University in St. Louis. “Oh my God, what am I gonna do now?” he recalls thinking. “It really threw me back … I knew I could do a data analytics job, but I didn’t really have all the tools.”

He decided to enroll in a data analytics boot camp at Washington University, dipping into savings to pay for the program while living on severance he received from his old employer.

Fortunately, he was hired at Mercy Hospital near St. Louis to work as an analyst before he even finished the program. Nash says without the boot camp he could not have performed his duties at Mercy, such as analyzing large batches of data using several different software programs, including Python.

“You’re going to need more than a onetime inoculation of education and training; you need continuous booster shots of skilling and upskilling.” 

— Van Ton-Quinlivan, executive in residence at the Institute for the Future

Dixon, who finished the data analytics program at Rice in May 2019, continues looking for full-time work. He borrowed from Sallie Mae to pay for the program, expecting to land a position soon after. While at Rice, he held on to a job but left it a few weeks before the program ended.

He says he’s surprised that his job search is still ongoing, and is staying fresh with his skills by volunteering to teach at a high school and accepting a role as a teaching assistant for the boot camp he completed. Trilogy does provide career counseling as part of tuition, which has helped Dixon with his résumé and LinkedIn profile. He meets digitally with a career counselor through Trilogy every two weeks. 

A Trilogy spokesperson said that while the company has north of a 90 percent completion rate for its programs, it “does not publicize employment data due to the risk that it will be misinterpreted or miscast,” adding that “using employment rates as a marketing tool can set the wrong expectations about the effort it takes to succeed in a career in technology.”

Both Rice and University of Oregon officials say the instruction in their boot camps is tailored to respond to feedback from local employers. The University of Oregon’s continuation school has a staffer who meets with tech businesses to explore how the curriculum can be fine-tuned and to make them aware of its boot camp graduates.

Freedman’s boot camp experience has been more life-fulfilling than remunerative, so far. She left the law job that made her miserable for a part-time role as an adjudicator, a position she held on to while at the University of Toronto boot camp. The web-building languages she learned now underlie her venture with several other boot camp graduates to develop websites for nonprofits in the Toronto area. For now, they’re doing the work for free, building a portfolio before turning to a model that relies on donations for completed jobs.

Unlike at the boot camps at the University of Oregon and Rice, Freedman says she had few fellow students close to her age. But she used that age difference for motivation. “I wanted [my younger classmates] to know that if I put my mind to it, I could out-code them, I could out-speak them in an amusing way,” she said. But everyone in the class had “a vested interest in everybody else doing well,” she says. She struck a close friendship with one of the younger class peers, a robotic engineer. Freedman would dispense wisdom and public skills and in turn receive coding pointers.

Her children, now in their 20s, “were really proud of me, which, you know, my kids have never really said that to me before,” Freedman says. “I decided I didn’t like something and I went back to school and I hung in with it.”