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The Innovation Police: Can Code Academies and Regulators Agree on New Rules?

Dean Florez

President, Balance Inc.

This piece is the final article in a three-part series. You can read part one here and part two here.

Code academies have gotten the attention of California government officials, the innovation police. How? Through aggressive ads, nontraditional teaching methods and tuition fees that don’t fall into the federal or state financial aid system.

But who gives the innovation police authority?

Four years ago, a bill seeking to “reform” and reverse a growing trend of unscrupulous post-secondary higher education players taking advantage of unsuspecting students passed the California Legislature and was signed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s under this law’s premise that the innovation police derive their big reach into the code academy realm.

As a person voting on final passage of this original bill, I can attest to a simple fact: the law did not have code academies in mind during our debates. Thus, one has to wonder whether the new regulations put forth on code  academies by the Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education are valid.

A few examples will suffice:

  • The regulations today require all instructors to have three years of formal teaching experience. Many code academies provide industry-trained instructors, but few of them have little formal teaching experience. Should we close them down because we have no formal teaching credentials in the classroom?
  • State regulations provide that an operator must run any change in curriculum by BPPE in an approval process that can take six months. Shereef Bishay, the founder of San Francisco-based Dev Bootcamp has pointed out that “we change our curriculum every three weeks, and we can’t teach technology that’s six months old,” noting that “if we were to follow those regulations to the letter, it would hurt our students.” Would anyone at BPPE really understand the technical curriculum of HTML, CSS, Ruby on Rails, jQuery, PHP and Python—much less understand the daily modified coding curriculum?
  • Regulations push for enhanced disclosure of critical information for students such as program outlines, graduation and job placement rates. This is important, however note that entities such as App Academy are structuring programs that only require a student to pay tuition after they get a developer job. Most code academy’s also report job placement rates as it is their chief marketing strength, i.e. App Academy also reports that 95 percent of their graduates find developer jobs with an average salary of $90,000. Are we asking code academies to report on their largest selling point?
  • Regulations establishing prohibitions on false advertising and inappropriate recruiting. This might directly apply to code academies such as Code Fellow, for example, which touts that any student who completes boot camp without a $60,000 job offer nine months after graduating gets his or her full-tuition refunded. It’s self-regulating. Why does the state feel a need to regulate this?

It appears lawmakers have armed the BPPE—the innovation police—with an array of enforcement tools to ensure that traditional, structured, private colleges comply with the law. However, code academies offer neither degrees nor award certificates. Appears the innovation police were sent to the wrong location looking for the wrong suspects.

While the legislature now grapples with the “regulation” question, code academies are not passively awaiting their predetermined hearing. They have forged a new alliance to “self-police” themselves while recognizing that state mandated consumer protections have their place. The New Economy Skills Training Association has now been established by the founders of the original targeted code academies in California and its potential reach is national.

With a mission to establish best practices, standards, and increase accountability for outcome-based NESTA organizations, and unlike other new economy players seeking to curb government intervention, these millennial CEOs are not following the model of fighting government intervention on the marble slab playing field of city halls or state legislatures. Unlike Uber, which recently hired David Plouffe, President Barack Obama’s former adviser to direct the company’s political activities, or Airbnb’s government pushback, code academies seek to define the standards along with government that will allow their industry to flourish.

A version of a neighborhood watch organization, code academies seek to work alongside the innovation police and set rules based on best practices, standards, and increase accountability for future innovators. David J. Phillips, chairman of NESTA and CEO of Hackbright Academy said it best: “This is an incredibly fast-paced industry with droves of smart people committed to innovative education, economic empowerment, and improving the lives of their students.

Many of the schools’ track records overwhelmingly reassure us that they are doing good work. We’d love to see the government do more to promote and support organizations with high standards and accountability who creating value for their constituents.  In recent months, we’re happy to say that this has been the case.  We’ve been meeting with the City of San Francisco to discuss ways to get more people educated with these high demand skills. This month, we met with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy for a workshop addressing the IT talent shortage and the role NESTA schools will play.”

The question is, will this self-policing effort be the end of this saga? It certainly is a future model for other new economy startups to consider. But, clearly, something must happen soon, as the innovation police have arrived—armed with a warrant given to them by lawmakers. The only question is whether they will be taking a doughnut break long enough for innovation to escape their grasp.

Dean Florez

President, Balance Inc.

Dean Florez is the president and CEO of Balance, Inc. and has 20 years of legislative & policymaking experience in the higher education field.