For-profit coding bootcamps, intensive courses that promise to teach attendees practical programming skills in a short amount of time, have rapidly become a phenomenon over the last few years. So many new programs are popping up across the US, and so fast, that some commentators have described the nascent industry as being in a “Wild West” stage as regulators struggle to catch up.
Some of these programs are reputable and selective in who they enroll—Obama has even called them a ticket to a well-paying job for the underprivileged, and the government even offers some financial aid for those who enroll in them. But other programs, critics have said, might just be extensions of the kinds of predatory for-profit schools that came before them; the kinds of schools with TV commercials that scream, “Get off your couch and pick up that phone today! What are you waiting for?” The names are familiar: Corinthian, ITT Tech—and Brensten.
Well, you might not have heard of Brensten Education, but the company operated in Waukesha, Wisconsin for years before suddenly shutting down in January of 2016, leaving many of its students in debt and without a diploma. Near the time of the shutdown, Brensten was facing accusations from the Education Approval Board that the school was “pocketing financial aid money and drumming up bogus reasons to drop students,” decreasing levels of education and support staff for students, and not delivering the program as promised. A Brensten education, according to StartClass, cost $13,130. In December of 2015, just before the closing, police looked into a report that “several students” had threatened to return to the school “with violent intent."
"It's just there to churn out degrees and cash in quick, I'm sorry to say"
It appears that Brensten has been reborn, however, this time as a coding bootcamp called devCodeCamp, started by the same people behind Brensten in August of 2015. Some former Brensten staff believe that students enrolling in the new Milwaukee-based coding bootcamp (the name itself is similar to reputable San Francisco-based hacker school dev Bootcamp), might be at risk of being similarly exploited. Tuition is $14,987 at devCodeCamp, and promises a “14-week, full-time path to becoming a software engineer.”
A Brensten PR representative told Fox6 that devCodeCamp and Brensten are “separate legal entities and have been run as such,” but the ties between the two companies might be closer than implied: Former Brensten CEO Jim Brent is now working at devCodeCamp, along with two other former Brensten top administrators, a recent Fox6 investigation reported.
A former adjunct instructor at Brensten named Richard, who asked not to be referred to by his last name due to concerns over negative affects on his current career, told Motherboard that a “handful” of administrative staff made the jump from Brensten to devCodeCamp. Another former Brensten employee, who asked to remain anonymous, told Motherboard via email that two instructors moved from Brensten to devCodeCamp, and that Brensten’s financial aid and career placement people handled both schools.
Richard also confirmed student accounts, relayed by the Education Approval Board, that the school’s staff was on a steady decline in numbers during his time there in 2015 (this has been denied by Brensten). In fact, he told me that he laughed at Brensten’s curriculum when he saw it, and that the school did not deliver the promised returns to what he said was its largely non-white and underprivileged student body.
“There was a very large push to get everyone cranked out, and to get everyone passed; it was based on a for-profit model,” Richard added. “It’s just there to churn out degrees and cash in quick, I’m sorry to say.”
This attitude may also be the driving force behind the new devCodeCamp, he said. “I would be concerned for [devCodeCamp students], because of what I saw occur there,“ Richard said of Brensten. “These are people who just wanted to stop being broke,” he said.
Fox6 found that devCodeCamp staff were encouraging prospective students to take out private loans in order to enroll in the program—not problematic on its own, but a potential red flag considering the company’s history. At the time of writing, at least one post on Reddit’s Milwaukee subreddit is warning potential students to stay away from devCodeCamp.
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“Really shady stuff, save your money and take free online courses if you want to learn to code,” the poster wrote. “I actually interviewed some Brensten graduates and felt so bad for them. They were really nice people and were obviously trying to improve their lives but knew absolutely nothing about IT,” another responded.
Coding bootcamps, like regular colleges and universities, sink or swim based on their reputations, which often translates into the quality of their graduates—this, in part, means being selective in who they enroll. Flatiron School, one reputable code camp, has a reported acceptance rate of about 6 percent.
Another former Brensten IT instructor, who is also a former student and asked to be referred to as “MJ” due to professional concerns, told Motherboard that the selection process for students at Brensten slipped dramatically from when he was a student there, in 2008, and when he was an instructor, in 2014. MJ also confirmed that he had heard of Brensten staff making the jump to devCodeCamp.
“As a student, I had to go through a personality assessment, cognitive skills tests, word association, a basic IQ test; I also met with a counselor to go through whether this is what I wanted to do,” MJ said. “When I was talking to students in my class, it was determined that there was no personality assessment, there was no cognitive assessment, and there was no interviews. I personally polled my class and basically Facebook and Google was the extent of their internet experience up to that point.”
These practices may continue at devCodeCamp, MJ added. “I wouldn’t put it past them,” MJ said. Indeed, MJ implored students considering devCodeCamp’s program to look elsewhere, for their sake, and so did Richard. Richard also noted that Brensten students may be able to file for student debt forgiveness if they didn’t get their degree as a result of the school shutting down.
As of November 2015, devCodeCamp was looking to expand its operations into Madison, Wisconsin. Projections based on 2014 numbers suggested that the coding boot camp industry grew by 2.5 percent, graduated more than 16,000 people, and earned more than $17 million in tuition revenue across 67 coding camps in the US in 2015.
DevCodeCamp did not respond to Motherboard’s request for comment.