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Technology & Entrepreneurship

Are Coding Schools Regulated In Texas? It Depends.

A billboard advertising Codebound found at I-10 and Callaghan Street.
Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio
A billboard advertising Codebound found at I-10 and Callaghan Street.

In December a post on LinkedIn celebrated the forthcoming launch of a coding program called Codebound, a partnership between San Antonio’s University of the Incarnate Word and local software studio Appddiction.

Then a competitor questioned the legitimacy of the training program.

“It looks like Codebound hasn’t been licensed by the state of Texas,” said Dimitri Antoniou in the post’s comments section. “In which case any and all advertising for their programs would be illegal and entitle students to a full tuition refund.”

Antoniou referred to the database hosted by the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC), which regulates career schools and coding bootcamps — the unaccredited, fast-track training programs that claim students will get better jobs. They can cost in excess of $1,000 per week and last up to 24 weeks.

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Credit Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio

The post drew a fierce response from Appddiction CEO Tim Porter, who said the company was authorized by the state. But he then went on to taunt his competition.

“I hate scared punks that think they can call mommy and say, ‘I don’t see they are certified, you have to stop them.’  F******* idiots! Take that to the bank,” he said.

Porter didn’t back down from his statement when TPR asked him about it. He said a fearful Codeup tried to get them shut down by TWC before they could compete.

“We just think we should all be regulated and have the same oversight. We want to compete on an equal playing field,” said Codeup co-founder and CEO Jason Straughan.

The online spat between the two coding programs highlighted the convoluted way Texas regulates the industry.

It turns out that Codeup and schools that aren’t contracted by a university fall under TWC oversight. Since 2016 it has licensed coding schools, approved curriculum and new programs and published student outcome data on jobs. It can also lay out corrective actions for schools breaking the rules.

Appddiction’s Codebound – among other programs doing business with an accredited university – aren’t bound by those regulations.

“Codebound is not regulated by the Texas Workforce Commission if University of the Incarnate Word is managing the enrollments,” said Cisco Gamez, TWC spokesman.

And it’s convoluted because neither Appddiction nor TWC initially understood that they had no relationship. 

According to an email reviewed by TPR, TWC said it would contact Appddiction about being unlicensed. Appddiction’s Codebound website says it was approved by TWC, a fact that TWC was unaware of until TPR asked about it. 

According to TWC, they haven’t issued any kind of approval and wouldn’t regulate Appddiction’s Codebound.

So, while TWC-regulated schools have to publish student job placement rates – and can be shut down if they don’t meet certain thresholds — others are under no such structure. 

“What’s hard for them is that people are calling them out all the time about their outcomes... and there’s no data to hold anyone else accountable,” said Sheree Speakman, chief operating officer for the Council on Integrity in Results Reporting. CIRR is a database of student outcome data volunteered by coding schools like Codeup. Currently less than 20% of coding schools take part.

And it’s a big industry. In seven years, it’s gone from a few dozen to more than 100 bootcamp programs, with more than 20,000 students paying in excess of a quarter billion dollars annually.

Its massive growth, despite persistent questions about whether the industry delivers on its  promises of better jobs. Those questions are why the state cracked down on the schools and forced them to get licenses and show their work. 

That’s important because some schools have overpromised, they have manipulated data, and according to Chris Lofton, CEO of Austin Coding Academy, that just makes it tougher for students.

“Having real data with an agreed upon methodology that you can look at, to understand what you're getting into as a potential student, really helps with that decision,” he said.

Appddiction won’t have to release its data, though, and neither will Trilogy Education Services, another provider which just launched a part-time program at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

“We choose to regulate ourselves, I guess, if you want to put it that way,” said Lisa Blazer, senior associate provost at UTSA, who will oversee the partnership.

Trilogy is the behemoth bootcamp provider that targets the university continuing education space. They were sold for $750 million  last year, but you may have never heard of them. They often sell themselves to applicants as the university they do business with — so it looks like you are signing up for a course with Columbia or Rutgers, but the courses are taught by Trilogy employees.

That irks some students, and the experiences with the program seem to vary widely based on what program a person attended.

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Credit Screenshot of Reddit
Anonymous gripes about Trilogy on popular forum Reddit. Many spoke up for the program in the comments as well, saying people get what they make of it.

And some are critical of these bootcamp additions to university continuing education programs. Ryan Craig with University Ventures, a fund that invests in coding programs and “last mile” training, said they are often seen as additional revenue streams for universities.

“(It’s) 100% a revenue stream,” he said. “And they aren’t offering degrees, right? In most cases they’re not even offering certifications. So most people in the university say, ‘I don’t care too much because the brand isn’t at stake.”

Trilogy wouldn’t  offer specific certifications opting instead for certificates of completion. Appdiction will offer certifications in Agile development from an authorizing body.

It's important to note that Craig's criticims extend beyond just university partnerships. He is averse to many programs that have up front costs for students, including Codeup. His fund invests in programs have apprenticeships or agree on an income share from students.

Despite the lackluster experience of some students elsewhere, Blazer believes in the UTSA-Trilogy program. Trilogy already teaches programs at UT Austin, Rice and Southern Methodist University. 

She and a professor in the data science school vetted the professors and the curriculum, and they hold bi-weekly calls with the company. Things are going so well with the first class that launched in September that they plan on increasing class size for future iterations.

“The scores for satisfaction have been very high, so we’re pleased with that,” she said.

Only time will tell if the new San Antonio programs produce successful students, but despite not being required to report that data, both Appdiction and UTSA said they will.

“That’s part of what we want to do, is really highlight success and track career trajectory,” Blazer said.

Despite being taught by Trilogy, they are UTSA students, said Blazer, and she said they take that seriously.

“So if we get to the point down the road where we aren’t seeing the success rate we want to see, then we would want Trilogy to address that.”

But will the two models that provide similar programming for significant amounts of money be held to the same standard? It seems unlikely.

For instance, Codeup just went through a lengthy and costly fight to be allowed to guarantee money back to students who don’t get a job in the industry. According to Straughan, TWC saw it as an illegal job guarantee.

Conversely, Appddiction’s chief of staff Leslie Barron posted on LinkedIn that "(Codebound is the) only bootcamp with certifications and a guaranteed job upon completion.”

While it would have broken TWC’s rules, it doesn’t seem to break any under its model. 

So, the question remains will universities prove adept at being both regulators and educators?

Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org or on Twitter @paulflahive.