More colleges are partnering with boot camps to tap demand for short-term programs

by Emma


Coding boot camps have long been viewed as the antithesis of traditional higher education. They focus more heavily on technical training. Their programs usually last weeks instead of years. And they are mostly free from the heavy regulation that pervades the rest of the sector. 

But recently, more of them have been joining forces with colleges and universities. This month, for instance, Flatiron School announced it is working with the University of Cambridge, in the U.K., to launch a 10-week data science program through the college’s continuing education department. 

It’s one of several coding schools looking to collaborate more with colleges. Course Report, a coding boot camp review site, added 138 schools last year to its directory, said Liz Eggleston, its co-founder and editor. Around one-third were offered through universities. 

“That’s not trivial,” Eggleston said

Other data also points to a growing trend. Universities worldwide forged at least 73 partnerships with boot camps from January through September of last year, according to findings from market research firm HolonIQ. That’s up from 49 in all of 2019

These partnerships vary. While in some, the boot camp providers handle most of the instruction, in others, the universities play a larger role in crafting the curriculum. 

For coding schools, these arrangements lend their programs credibility and familiarity from well-known college brands. Universities, meanwhile, benefit from a new revenue stream and partners that can launch and modify programs faster than they could on their own. 

“The tech stack is changing so quickly, (and) these kinds of partnerships give the university a chance to pivot quickly,” said Rick Hefner, program director at the California Institute of Technology‘s Center for Technology and Management Education, which recently launched a cybersecurity boot camp with an outside partner.

The coronavirus pandemic may accelerate the trend. Many laid-off workers are looking to gain new skills, and boot camps and other short-term programs may provide a quicker way to earn a credential than enrolling in a degree program, analysts said. Indeed, some boot camp providers told Higher Ed Dive they are seeing rising student interest in their programs, which they credit in part to the economic fallout from the health crisis. 

Full-time enrollment in U.S. and Canadian coding boot camps, specifically, has been steadily growing for several years, increasing from around 7,000 students in 2014 to more than 23,000 students in 2019, according to Course Report. Online programs make up a sliver of that figure, but their enrollment is swiftly expanding, more than doubling between 2018 and 2019. 

The pandemic could continue that growth, forcing boot camps to switch to virtual formats along with the rest of the higher ed sector. For coding schools that used to operate mostly in person, this transition offers an opportunity to recruit students beyond their geographic bounds. 

Moreover, the growth in boot camp–university partnerships reflects a larger trend of mounting interest in alternative credentials. “Short courses have been winners in this environment,” said Trace Urdan, managing director at investment banking and consulting firm Tyton Partners. “Universities are anxious that they could lose share to this new type of offering.”

‘They had it all’

Trilogy Education Services is one of the biggest players in the boot camp market. 2U, a company that helps colleges launch and run online programs, bought the provider in 2019

At the time, Trilogy ran more than 120 programs across 45 institutions, typically in fields such as coding, analytics and cybersecurity, but it has expanded since the acquisition. In 2020, 2U launched more than 70 university-run boot camps through Trilogy. 

The University of California, Irvine, launched a coding boot camp with Trilogy in 2017 and has added five more since in subjects such as digital marketing, data analytics and cybersecurity. 

Although enrollment in UC-Irvine‘s boot camps briefly dipped in March, when the coronavirus forced schools to move their programs online, it exceeded expectations for the rest of the year. To date, more than 1,200 students have enrolled in the university’s boot camps, all of which are run by Trilogy, bringing in about $2 million in revenue annually. 

While Trilogy provides career services, as well as the instructors and curriculum, the university reviews the latter two elements and helps with some of the marketing. The two split the tuition revenue the programs bring in, though an official didn’t share details about the arrangement.

Launching a boot camp and maintaining the curriculum would be too expensive for the university to do on its own, even if its enrollment was high, said Gary Matkin, dean of UC-Irvine’s continuing education division. “In the case of Trilogy, they came to us, they had a curriculum, they had the instructors, they had it all,” Matkin said. “It was basically a turnkey program.”

“The tech stack is changing so quickly, (and) these kinds of partnerships give the university a chance to pivot quickly.”

Rick Hefner

Program director, Caltech’s Center for Technology and Management Education

Trilogy’s parent company has competition from other online program managers that have brought boot camps under their umbrellas in recent years. 

Zovio bought Fullstack Academy, a coding school, in early 2019 — just weeks before the parent company changed its name from Bridgepoint Education. The acquisition was part of Zovio’s transition from a for-profit college operator to an educational services company. 

At two of Fullstack‘s partner schools, Louisiana State University and Caltech, officials described similar arrangements with the company to run boot camps. Fullstack is largely responsible for the instruction and curriculum, while the schools provide oversight. Officials at both universities say they have a revenue-share agreement with Fullstack, though they declined to share the split. 

Louisiana State launched boot camps in cybersecurity and coding with Fullstack last summer, though a university official declined to share financial information. The arrangement also let the university avoid paying upfront for key startup costs, such as finding subject-matter experts to create the curriculum. 

“That is where the partnership I think makes a lot of sense,” said Sasha Thackaberry, Louisiana State’s vice president of online and continuing education. “You’re bringing this national expertise to bear (on) your local audience.” 

What’s next for boot camps?

Several changes are rocking the boot camp sector. Although many programs are offered in person, the pandemic forced them to switch to virtual classes practically overnight. 

Some companies found success online. Trilogy’s parent company, for instance, partly credits the move with revenue growth. “Obviously (it) was stressful when we were doing it — taking everything online — but it’s been fantastic expanding our geography,” 2U CEO Chip Paucek told analysts in October.

But being online doesn’t erase the sector’s difficulties.  

“It’s not a software product,” said Jeff Silber, an analyst at BMO Capital Markets. “You still (face) acquisition costs of getting students, you still need instructors, so it’s hard to build a profitable business.” 

The sector has also seen several large acquisitions in recent years. Trilogy and Fullstack were both snapped up by online program managers in 2019. Chegg, a textbook and ed tech company, bought online coding boot camp Thinkful the same year. And staffing firm Adecco acquired General Assembly in 2018. 

Though consolidation isn’t likely to affect university–boot camp partnerships, more is on the horizon, Urdan said. 

2U’s Trilogy appears to be cornering the market on partnerships with top-tier universities, Urdan said, and so other boot camps may pursue deals with other types of colleges. 

“It’s not a software product. You still (face) acquisition costs of getting students, you still need instructors, so it’s hard to build a profitable business.”

Jeff Silber

Analyst, BMO Capital Markets.

Indeed, companies are carving out niches. Flatiron School, for instance, is partnering with colleges to launch boot camps with the intent of teaching them how to eventually run them. The company charges universities set fees for services as they are delivered, rather than using revenue-share agreements through which they are repaid for their investment over time. 

“We’re not looking to be an OPM. We’re not looking to license a brand and take some percent of the revenue,” said Adam Enbar, CEO and co-founder of Flatiron. “We can help a university do this on their own and run their own program, and we’d be excited to license our (intellectual property) to them to enable them to do that.”

Other companies, meanwhile, aren’t planning on teaming up with universities. While General Assembly, one of the most well-known coding schools in the U.S., has partnered with colleges, it has grown its brand by working directly with students and with corporations. 

“It’s not to say we wouldn’t consider it in the future,” Liz Simon, General Assembly’s co-chief operating officer, said of university partnerships. “But we haven’t needed that as a growth channel.”


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