When It Comes to Tech Education, the Fox Should Not Set the Rules for the Hen House

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This post originally appeared on Medium.com by Jim Deters, CEO & Founder, Galvanize.

Within the last couple of days, the tech press has reported that a group of coding boot camps and accelerated-learning programs have come together to create an industry-wide standard for reporting graduation and job placement data. Indeed, there is much good news in this development, as there is a pressing need for industry-wide standards of accountability and transparency, both for the benefit of the industry and the consumer. We commend this group, the Council on Integrity in Results Reporting. Their announcement comes on the heels of a similar effort that Galvanize—the tech-education company that I co-founded—and our partners formalized months ago, last December.

However, we feel compelled to point out this CIRR effort is tainted by a conflict of interest that undermines the best of intentions. Which is why Galvanize declined to participate in CIRR and instead, late last year, helped launch the Quality Assurance Task Force. More about the members of the Task Force in a second.

The for-profit tech-ed market is booming at an astonishing rate because it is filling a growing skills-gap need. Currently, however, for-profit tech-ed programs operate only within the compliance requirements of each state, which is to say, the rules that govern the reporting and accuracy of these statistics are a patchwork. There is no uniform national standard for reporting accountability and transparency. In such a competitive marketplace there will be all the more temptation for tech-ed programs to play fast and loose with their graduation rates and job placement statistics.

The CIRR brought together many smaller coding bootcamps to collectively come up with standards regarding student-outcome data, with the group convened and lead by Skills Fund. Galvanize declined to participate in the CIRR effort for two reasons:

First, Skills Fund is a lending agency for coding schools and boot camps. In fact, Galvanize is fortunate to work with Skills Fund; they are an excellent lending partner. Skills Fund’s profits, as with any lending agency’s profits are, at least in part, predicated on graduating an increasing number of students with loans to be repaid.

With such a lending agency leading the effort to craft standards of reporting for graduation rates and job placement, it could be viewed in two ways. One perception is the lending agency would be incentivized to advocate for rigorous transparency and accountability standards to ensure the only students graduated are those who indeed have the skills necessary to secure and maintain jobs that will enable them to repay the loans. Alternatively, another perception is that the lending agency’s advocacy might be informed by a desire to graduate as many students with loans as possible. This creates, at least, what we believe to be a troubling and counterproductive perceived conflict of interest.

Consider the financial crisis of 2008: Bond rating agencies were too close to banks that issued the bonds, and had a similar economic incentive to downgrade existing bonds. When it comes to the Council on Integrity in Results Reporting deliberative process, the integrity of the council and its process is compromised from the start, as Skills Fund is, in effect, both the bank and the rating agencies—the lending Fox setting the standards that allegedly protect the industry Hen House of for-profit schools.  

The second reason Galvanize declined to participate with the CIRR effort is the only stakeholders Skills Fund brought to their table were coding bootcamps. In other words, the lending agency convened its clients or potential clients to craft uniform industry-wide standards for transparency and accountability. There were no representatives of traditional higher education, no consumer protection advocates, no thought leaders from other sectors involved, who could provide perspectives to serve as a counterbalance to the lending agencies.

Galvanize wants to work with a diverse group of stakeholders and craft uniform standards informed by input from outside the coding-bootcamp industry. Otherwise, how else can the process or the rules adopted have…integrity?

And so late last year, Galvanize helped convene the Quality Assurance Task Force, with Michael Horn of the Clayton Christensen Institute and Entangled Solutions; in partnership with Western Governors University, The University of Texas, and General Assembly, which like Galvanize is a large provider of tech education. A lending agency, Climb, is a part of our Task Force, as that perspective is necessary. But Climb is only a part, a voice no more influential than the rest—certainly, Climb is not leading the Quality Assurance Task Force. Climb has no more influence than our consumer advocate voice, Ben Miller of the Center for American Progress.

Galvanize proposed to our Task Force that the industry adopt the criteria and standards that align with the most rigorous reporting standards for  graduate rates and job placement statistics in the country—those of the California Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education (CBPPE).

The CBPPE requires schools to publish their stats in a student performance “fact sheet” and file it with the bureau. This fact sheet also must be posted on the school’s website and provided to prospective students. To clarify: Currently, while a for-profit accelerated learning company must adhere to the California standards in California, it does not have to hold itself to those same rigorous standards in any other state. So a tech-ed program may show placement rates in other states where it operates that are notably different—as in, curiously higher—than the rates it files in California.

While our Quality Assurance Task Force convenes our broad coalition of stakeholders to consider and refine the baseline California standards, and works to build public and private sector support for these rules to be adopted by every state in the nation, we at Galvanize did not wait.

While we helped launch the Quality Assurance Task Force, last October, we announced that we would hold ourselves to the CBPPE reporting standards. And not just in California, but in every one of the five states where Galvanize has a campus. Furthermore, we have invested over $200,000 in our own consumer protection efforts, including a thorough third-party accounting firm audit of our placement rates. Our audit and verified placement rates are available on our website.

Galvanize did this because where students choose to invest in their education is one of the most important decisions of their lives. They deserve clear data and verified metrics. We call our effort the Galvanize Standard. Holding ourselves to the strictest guidelines to date, Galvanize’s 2015 placement rates are 88% for web development and 90% for data science.  

At Galvanize, we believe that for industry-wide standards to have integrity, the process that crafts and that perhaps ultimately helps hold the industry accountable to those standards, must also have integrity; all of it must be free of actual or perceived conflicts of interest. Also, we believe that it would best serve the industry and the consumers if the broadest spectrum of stakeholders joined in one effort to expedite adoption of standards informed by the most balanced perspectives.

We have invited Skills Fund to join our Quality Assurance Task Force, and we do so again. We encourage Skills Fund to step aside from its leadership role with CIRR, and we suggest that Skills Fund and the stakeholders of CIRR merge with the Quality Assurance Task Force. We could rename the entity, maybe incorporating “Integrity” into the new name for this unified body. We would all then be united, free of conflicts of interest, and most importantly, be in a stronger position to give both the industry and the consumer the confidence that the process indeed has integrity.

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