With the high cost of four year college and the difficult job market for many graduates, it's getting increasingly difficult to justify the cost of a traditional college education. 

Thinking about college as an investment on which parents and students need to earn a measurable return is making it harder for college administrators to justify continuing to offer majors that do not help graduates get high-paying jobs.

On July 28, Money magazine went so far as to choose Babson College, my part-time employer, the top rank among American colleges--beating Harvard, MIT, Stanford, and Princeton based on a comparison of the tuition to the average income of graduates five and ten years after they graduate.

This same return on investment mentality to education is making some--namely those who choose a career in computer programming-- to think about abandoning college altogether. Instead, there are programs that charge much less money and guarantee their graduates jobs in the field as soon as they graduate.

At least that's what the Wall Street Journal reports is the promise of a Seattle-based computer programming course. Code Fellows is so confident of its effectiveness that it "will refund a student's tuition--$12,000 for 16 blitzkrieg weeks to get a person from zero to trained--if that person doesn't get a job," according to the Journal.

Code Fellows isdoing a pretty good job of getting jobs for its graduates--as of July 2014, 88% of those who entered its intensive program had graduated--but it's "highly selective, which always boosts the kinds of numbers educational institutions like to show off," notes the Journal.

To be sure, computer programming is a very special segment of the job market--that's because demand for this skill vastly outstrips the supply.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that by 2020, one million programming jobs in the U.S. will go unfilled. Traditional colleges don't satisfy the huge demand. For example, there were only slots at the University of Washington's computer science department for 25% of those who wanted them.

As long as there demand for computer programmers exceeds the ability of colleges and universities to supply trained individuals, other institutions--if qualified--should fill the gap.

I would definitely advise students to choose these alternative institutions--but only if three conditions are satisfied:

  • Commitment. First, they must be sure that they want to spend their careers writing computer programs.
  • Great instruction. Second the organizations that train them to program computers must have great learning experiences with excellent professors.
  • Great corporate connections. Finally, they must be certain that major employers and startups are eager to hire their graduates because there is a strong fit between what potential employers want and the skills that they provide their students.

And as long as these new organizations give students a better bang for their buck, I expect them to take students from colleges that don't adapt.