After finishing up her undergraduate degree in creative writing at San Francisco State, Monica Williams knew she wanted to pivot and become a software engineer. The problem was, she wasn't sure how to pursue that path.
With no prior coding experience, Williams, 22, didn't feel she could apply for traditional master's or bachelor's computer science programs. And with tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, paying another $10,000 for a three-month coding bootcamp was a daunting thought.
"There's no way, no chance ever that I'd be able to do that," Williams says.
As she scrolled through her Facebook news feed one day, Williams found a peculiar alternative. She saw an ad for Learners Guild, one of a handful of new Bay Area coding schools looking to revolutionize the way students train to become software engineers--and how they pay for their higher education.
Unlike coding bootcamps, which typically conduct hyper-accelerated 12-week programs, Learners Guild, along with Make School and Holberton School, teach their students how to code over much longer periods. And in contrast with collegiate computer science programs, these schools wait until their students begin working before they charge them a penny.
The schools avoid charging up-front tuition by instead entering into income-share agreements with their students. In these agreements, the schools charge students a portion of their first few years of salary, but only if the students get a job as a result. These jobs must also meet a certain minimum annual salary threshold or the students do not have to pay for the education.
"There have been a few times where I've calculated on my own, 'I see this job pays this much money, and if I could get this job, this is how much I would owe,'" Williams says. "And I'm still happy with the amount of money I'd be making because it's more than I would be making" without enrolling at Learners Guild.
A new education model
Catalyzing these schools is a shared disdain by their founders for the way computer science is taught today. The entrepreneurs, themselves software engineers, have a shared desire to open up education to more students while also bringing more accountability to education.
"If a student walks out of Make School and isn't qualified to get a software engineering job, then we failed them," says Ashu Desai, the school's co-founder. "They should not eat the cost of our failure."
Make School, which kicked off a pilot program in 2014 and its first two-year program last September, is the only one of the three venture-backed schools to have collected any revenue from its students thus far. (Holberton School began teaching classes in January, while Learners Guild kicked off in July.) If these schools want to build sustainable businesses, they will have to provide top-tier training to ensure they produce employable hackers. They have as much skin in the game as each of their students do.
"I think in 10 years or 20 years, people are going to laugh at the notion that a student should bear the entire financial risk of their education," says Shereef Bishay, the founder of Learners Guild. Bishay previously founded Dev Bootcamp, a 19-week coding program that he sold to Kaplan in 2014.
Total student debt in the U.S. is now at more than $1.3 trillion. These schools are confident they'll attract talented students who wish to avoid racking up loans. "By not charging up-front tuition, Make School is able to pick the highest-quality candidates, regardless of ability to pay," says Allison Baum, managing partner of Fresco Capital, one of the investors in Make School. "Better candidates mean a higher likelihood of employment, a stronger brand, and significantly higher long-term upside potential."
At Oakland, California-based Learners Guild, students go through a 10-month program learning about software development. The school does not charge them unless they are able to land a job that pays at least $50,000 a year. If they do so, the students share 12.5 percent of their salary with the school for the next three years.
"If they want to get paid, then they have to give me all the tools and all the guidance that I need in order to get a job," Williams says. "They have to be invested in me." To complement their classes, the schools provide networking events and professional training. Holberton, for example, encourages students to write blog posts that will help raise their credibility within the industry.
Holberton School has a similar structure. Students come to the San Francisco school for nine months before doing a six-month internship. After that, students are encouraged to find a job while continuing to study online for the next nine months. Holberton charges its students 17 percent of their internship pay as well as 17 percent of the first three years of their salary, though only if they accept a job that pays more than $50,000 a year.
"College provides a wider education, which we don't address. We will not teach you history or economics," says Sylvain Kalache, co-founder of Holberton School, which was named after computer science pioneer Elizabeth Holberton. "We are an alternative education intended much more to produce the individuals and professionals who are ready to work right after they graduate."
San Francisco's Make School conducts its program over a two-year period in which students come to the school for nine months, leave for a six month internship, and return for another nine months. The students can use the final nine months to focus their studies on specific areas of computer science that intrigue them. The school collects 25 percent of students' internship salaries as well as 25 percent of their first three years of salary. If students earn less than $60,000 a year following the program, the repayment is paused, the school says.
Make School saw 100 percent of the students in its one-year pilot class land jobs, and so far, the school's second class--its first two-year program--is off to a great start. That class is made up of 22 students, including Josh Archer, 21, who dropped out of college last year to attend Make School. Archer is now a full-time iOS engineer for Life360, a San Francisco tech company.
The school's cut is "still 25 percent no matter how much I earn, but as an engineer in San Francisco, that's still livable," Archer says. "It's definitely worth it in the long run."
Attracting a diverse student body
It's not just these schools' business model that stands out. They also have a unique way of admitting students, teaching them, and ensuring that their classes can attract individuals of all socioeconomic backgrounds.
At Holberton, for example, all admitted students are selected by a computer. At no point in the process does a human weigh in. To do this, Holberton built an automated application process that measures how much students already know about coding, how quickly they learn, their commitment to this endeavor, and, most importantly, how well they work with others.
"All of this is basically done with algorithms," Kalache says. "There is no discrimination possible. There is no human bias." Holberton School says it accepts less than 3 percent of applicants.
Once in the schools, few lectures, if any, occur. Rather, emphasis is placed on teaching students how to become lifelong learners who can work with their peers to solve problems. That's key in the field of software, where new programming languages are constantly rolled out and must be adopted by engineers. It's also critical to finding success in Silicon Valley, where problem-solving entrepreneurship reigns.
"The foundation of knowledge that they'll gain from Make School will last them for 50 years, if not necessarily the tech knowledge," Desai says. "It's really this thinking process of, 'How can I go out in the world and be part of solving these big problems that I see?'"
The schools have a variety of methods to ensure they attract students of all backgrounds. Learners Guild, for example, specifically chose its location in Oakland, which is more diverse than other parts of the Bay Area. Holberton and Make School, meanwhile, work with students who need help finding housing. Additionally, Learners Guild and Make School offer stipends. Upon getting a job, students who accept the stipend must pay back a higher portion of their salaries, but having the stipend allows them to focus on their studies rather than split their attention with part-time jobs.
"This is just a lot more financially feasible for me," Williams says. "If I wasn't doing this, I'd probably just be working and trying to save up until I could afford a program similar to this or a master's program."