By Kaitlin Mulhere
Updated: November 28, 2018 10:11 AM ET | Originally published: November 27, 2018

For years, coding schools have promoted the idea that they can teach in-demand computer skills just as well as traditional colleges. But now, in what appears to be a first, one coding school is evolving to offer a more traditional college program—bachelor’s degree included.

Make School, a coding program based in San Francisco, is announcing today its approval to grant an accredited bachelor’s degree in applied computer science, the product of a unique partnership between Make School and nearby Dominican University of California.

What’s more, the new degree program is designed to operate with a financial model that requires students to pay zero tuition upfront. Instead, graduates will pay a portion of their salary for a set number of years after leaving school. Make School expects to award degrees in three years or less.

“We’re trying to reduce the time to degree as much as possible to ensure students are getting into the workforce,” says Make School co-founder Ashu Desai. Doing so lowers the burden of college by reducing its opportunity cost, or the time in which students forego earnings to study full-time.

Few coding school programs are designed to truly replace a traditional college degree. And some that have pitched themselves as a replacement have been short-lived. If successful, Make School’s experiment would be the first of its kind. Here’s how it works.

No Tuition Until You’re Getting Paychecks

One of the uncommon aspects of Make School’s program is that students can attend with zero upfront payments, something that’s rare among bachelor’s degree programs. The few schools that do offer income share agreements, or ISAs, use them to supplement traditional tuition payments. In that sense, they’ve mainly been used to reduce a student’s debt, not eliminate it.

Make School has options that allow students to completely defer payment for both tuition and living expenses. Once graduates are hired for a job paying at least $60,000, they will owe 20% of their income for five years. Students who choose to accept a $1,500-a-month living stipend while in school will add 5% to their payments for the first years of employment, followed by 7% for another five years.

Twenty percent is higher than the share required by most other schools’ agreements, but that front-loading was by design. Since the majority of Make School’s students are in their late teens and early 20s, school leaders wanted to allow them to finish paying for their education by the time they hit their late 20s and are ready to focus on new financial goals, like buying a home or having children, Desai says. Students defer payments if they don’t hit the $60,000 salary starting point or go back to school. Their obligation to Make School ends after eight years, regardless of whether they’ve made five years of payments.

Supporters of ISAs say they better align a school’s priorities with the career outcomes of their students—the schools only get paid if students do. But the model doesn’t necessarily reduce the amount students pay for their education. Alumni from Make School’s current two-year program have an average $95,000 starting salary, based on self-reported data from about 45 participants. At that rate, they’ll owe just shy of $20,000 a year for the tuition portion of the income share agreement.

Job Skills Through a Project-Based Curriculum

Make School officially opened applications for its bachelor’s degree in October. In that first month, interest from prospective students was double what it was during the first three months of last year’s admissions cycle.

Aside from the financial model, part of the appeal may be the school’s hands-on emphasis. In choosing who gets in, Make School doesn’t consider standardized test scores or high school GPA, instead looking for what it calls a sustained work ethic and an aptitude for computing. To ensure students will actually enjoy the coursework and their eventual jobs, Make School requires applicants have some exposure to computer science, either via a self-driven project, a high school course, or through an online program, called Ramp, offered by Make School.

Last year, one-third of applicants were admitted. Of those, about half ended up attending.

Once students enroll, they’ll be emerged in an entirely project-based curriculum, starting with the first day, when they build a portfolio to house their work throughout the program.

Instead of learning the fundamentals that support computer science first and then stacking on lessons in coding, user experience or analytics, Make School allows students to work on software projects and then complements that with seminars when it’s applicable. One of the first places students hit a roadblock and need more theoretical background is data storage, says dean Anne Spalding. Students build until they hit the point where they realize they don’t know how to store all the data their software program is collecting. Then they pause to learn the concept of databases and the algorithms used to develop them.

“We never have the problem of students asking ‘When will I need to know this?’” Spalding says. “Because they’re using it right then on the projects as they’re learning.”

Much of what students learn on the software and product development side is based on what tech companies are currently using. Make School partnered with Lyft, for example, for input on its course on Go, an open-source programming language used heavily by Lyft engineers.

Old School and New School Experiences

Partnerships between coding schools and universities are nothing new, says Liz Eggleston, who tracks the industry for CourseReport, a website that provides reviews and research on coding schools. Some programs, like Level at Northeastern University, offer course credit that can count toward a degree. In other models, colleges bring in a coding school to offer classes as part of a career development curriculum.

Yet none of the existing programs look like the partnership Make School and Dominican University have built.

Make School is getting accreditation through a new incubation program offered by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), which is offering a faster path to accreditation for those who partner with an existing college. In this case, Make School is relying on Dominican to guide it through a variety of federal policy and regulations, including structuring curriculum around defined learning objectives, measuring student outcomes, and collecting student data. In exchange, Dominican can take advantage of Make School’s industry expertise to quickly build up a computer science minor for its students.

Instructors from both schools are also teaching courses in their respective areas of expertise. This helps Make School round out it students’ technical skills with the type of critical thinking skills more often associated with the liberal arts. They’ll focus on communicating and writing clearly, working in teams, and understanding the ethics of new technologies, Desai says.

“Even as a software engineer, [employees] spend as much time talking to other people as they do talking to computers.”

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