Why One High School Senior Bypassed College to Learn to Code

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In the fall of 2015, high school seniors across the country crossed their ‘t’s and dotted their ‘I’s on their college applications, as their parents toiled over financial aid forms and braced for the sticker shock of a four-year degree. Aurora, Colo. senior Tommy Gaessler took a radically different approach.

At 18, with a clear vision of becoming a tech entrepreneur, Gaessler opted instead for what he saw as the most direct and economically sensible route to his goals: He applied to the Galvanize Web Development Immersive program, an intensive 24-week offering aimed at transforming beginner coders into job-ready software engineers.

“It was six months long, a fraction of the cost of college and totally focused on preparing you for and helping you find a job,” recalls Gaessler, who graduated from high school in May and started the program in July. “It just made sense for me. I ended up not applying to any colleges at all.”

Gaessler is among a small but seemingly growing number of recent high school graduates bypassing, postponing, or augmenting a traditional four-year college degree with an intensive, razor-focused coding boot camp. Some see it as a productive way to spend a gap year, as they get a better sense of what they want to study in college – if they go at all. Others take coding workshops while still in high school, find they’re hungry for more, and see immersive programs as the best way to get comprehensive, hands-on job skills fast.

Such scenarios, no doubt, remain a small minority. According to a study released by the online boot camp clearinghouse Course Report, the typical coding boot camp student is 30 years old, with 7 years of work experience, and a bachelor’s degree. Fewer than 3 percent have only a high school degree or less. But as the average cost of college soars (to $32,405 per year at private colleges, $9,410 for state residents at public colleges, and $23,893, according to the College Board), more students and their parents are exploring alternatives to maximize their return on investment.

“As boot camps get more media coverage, I am definitely getting more inquiries from parents of high-schoolers,” says Course Report co-founder Liz Eggleston. She notes that while those with a high-school diploma only are in the minority, demographically, they stand the most to gain financially. She’s quick to stress that she does not see boot camps, as a general rule, becoming a “replacement” for college. “There are still a lot of life lessons to be gained with a four-year degree,” she says.

On the flip-side, a four-year degree is not for everyone, says Tommy. “Honestly, I never saw myself going to college.”

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Growing up, he immediately gravitated to coding, exhausting every class his high school offered before moving to online classes at home. One day during his freshman year, he accompanied his father Gary Gaessler (founder of tech-startup Cloud Elements) to his then-workspace at Galvanize. Tommy found that even though he was the youngest person in the room, he felt eerily at home. “I discovered what this whole culture is like and I loved it,” he recalls.

Soon, he was regularly attending networking sessions, pitch contests, and lectures by area entrepreneurs at the Golden Triangle campus. His senior year, he took three 8-week workshops at Galvanize, rushing from a full-day at Regis Jesuit High School in Aurora, Colo., to spend his evenings honing up on html, CSS, and Java with classmates twice his age. When he applied to the 24-week immersive program, the application process was rigorous, and his acceptance was no sure thing.

“This program is not for every 18-year-old,” says lead Galvanize instructor Michael Herman, noting that in addition to Tommy, there is only one other student under age 20 in his current cohort of 28. “It takes someone who is very independent, mature, and socially well-rounded.” Tommy fit the bill.

This fall, as his high school buddies settle into their dorm rooms and hit the books for their core liberal arts classes, Tommy happily hunkers down from 9 to 5, five days a week in a Galvanize classroom, learning the intricacies of full stack web development, creating his own app, and learning the latest cutting-edge languages. Evenings and weekends, he rubs shoulders with founders of the local tech startup scene and explores career opportunities for when he graduates in December.

“I realize that the best programmer in the class who doesn’t know anybody and doesn’t have any connections will never get a job,” he says. “No other coding school is as immersed in the work culture and community as Galvanize.”

Meanwhile, his Dad is thrilled.

“From a hiring standpoint, I can tell you from experience that companies would rather have someone with real practical experience than someone who has just learned about concepts for four years,” he says. “Start-ups want someone who is hungry, wants to code, and has focus and discipline and those are the kind of people Galvanize kicks out. I think what Tommy is doing is fantastic.”

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