Is the Master’s Degree an Expensive Anachronism?

For legions of new college graduates struggling to find good jobs in a weak labor market, “boot camps” are a faster and cheaper alternative to traditional grad school.

Washington, D.C., is a college town. Georgetown, American, Catholic, Howard, and George Washington Universities all have sprawling campuses with dorms, lecture halls, athletic fields, and tens of thousands of students. But one of the most interesting higher education organizations in D.C. has none of those things. It’s called General Assembly. The entire “campus” is located on one end of the eighth floor of an office building on 15th Street, in a space that looks like a Silicon Valley startup, complete with cappuccino machines and lots of youngish people pecking away on their MacBooks. It’s like the whole university is the student lounge.

The differences don’t stop there. GA uses a business and learning model that departs radically from established colleges and universities. Instead of enrolling in the expensive one- and two-year master’s degrees that are increasingly becoming the norm for people trying to find a foothold in the job market, students at General Assembly’s twelve campuses in America, Europe, Australia, and Asia take intense, eight- to twelve-week programs in high-demand fields like computer programming and designing the user experience for high-traffic commercial websites. The goal isn’t to teach them everything they need to know to be great in a job. The goal is to teach them just enough to start a career. Because when it comes to learning and work, the most important thing is work itself.

To enroll, students go through a job interview-like process designed to gauge their commitment to the $9,500 course.* Many for-profit colleges will accept virtually anyone who can sign their name on federal student loan documents. The worst for-profits simply pass students through, imparting virtually no useful skills. GA doesn’t take federal aid. The first page of its application says, “In addition to the 9am-5pm class time, you will spend 10+ hours a week building your portfolio and honing your skill set outside of class. Do you anticipate any barriers that would prevent you from devoting this time to the program?”

Kate Tikoian, one of the students taking the user experience (UX) course in the D.C. office this spring, is a D.C. native who studied Spanish at Emory University. She left in 2002, moved back to her hometown, and became a self-taught IT person for a series of firms. But she wanted to do something more creative and fulfilling, and that would require skills she couldn’t pick up on her own.

In her first week in the course, Kate and a partner student presented one another with a problem to solve by designing a mobile app. Kate’s partner and her spouse had recently moved in with her father-in-law, which meant that their household now had two, sometimes overlapping and redundant, weekly grocery lists. Kate’s solution was to create an app called Already Got Spinach, a home pantry manager that generated automated shopping lists based on unavailable food.

Kate conducted “user interviews” with family members to get more specific information on their shopping habits, created “user flow” analyses that tracked how people would progress through the application, and sketched out app designs. This led to “concept mapping,” a synthesis of the visuals and the user experience, a prototype app on paper, and then usability testing. The results were then presented to the rest of the class. All of this was done in the first four days of the course. The rest of the UX class was built around a series of projects, each taking students in greater depth into skills like researching user preferences, designing friendly, intuitive interfaces, prototyping and testing products, and working with teams and clients.

The UX course was project based because skills are acquired through practice. While some theory is important, learning to work does not primarily involve the accumulation of facts and abstract concepts—unless, as with traditional academic subjects like history, dealing with facts and abstract concepts is the actual job. Reporters become better reporters by reporting, with the guidance of an editor. Chefs become better chefs by cooking. If you want to learn UX design, pick a problem and get started with an experienced UX designer looking on.

The UX students come to General Assembly every day during the week, where they split their time between attending classes taught by industry experts, working on projects in teams, and studying on their own. The atmosphere is quiet, informal, and collaborative, with a lot of huddling around laptops and sketching out ideas with markers on whiteboards. Nights and weekends are spent refining projects and working online. The educational model itself is not particularly dependent on technology. Much of the learning takes place as students and faculty interact in person.

The course length and intense workload are also no accident. There’s a reason the Marine Corps doesn’t send fresh recruits straight to the front lines: they need basic training. But there’s also a reason boot camp takes only twelve weeks—not coincidentally, the length of the longest course at GA and many of its competitors. Marines don’t leave Parris Island with the full complement of knowledge and skill needed to be the best soldier they can ever be. They leave with enough knowledge and skill to make a positive contribution to the organization, and to get started learning everything else they need on the job.

Ron Lin, chief technology officer and co-founder of the prepaid Visa card company Card.com, says he likes to hire GA graduates because they represent “the convergence of aptitude and commitment.” He knows that the admissions process selects for students willing to do demanding work. And because the project-focused GA curriculum produces a detailed portfolio of work that is easily displayed electronically, he can evaluate candidates’ skills and abilities directly. In the end, he said, “whether or not someone has a college degree is predictive of certain things, but it’s not the primary qualification. I want to know: What do you know? What have you done? How do you work?”

Lin isn’t the only one who thinks this way. According to the company’s self-reported statistics, over 90 percent of students get a job within three months of graduation. The number of GA graduates increased from 3,000 in 2013 to a projected 8,000 in 2014.

Ron Lin’s three questions have become incredibly important for young adults struggling to launch their careers. General Assembly and companies like it live in the growing chasm between the end of college and the beginning of meaningful work, a gap that exists because neither colleges nor businesses are willing to give students the training they need.

The legions of new college graduates struggling to find good jobs in a weak labor market are living in the aftermath of a historical economic transformation. When modern colleges were created in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the economy was largely composed of agriculture and manufacturing. The Industrial Revolution created huge firms and sectors dedicated to mass production. Companies competed by becoming more efficient at making better things for less money. The nature of work was, within a given field, predictable and narrowly defined by the processes of production.

But as society grew wealthier—inflation-adjusted GDP per capita tripled from 1950 to 2010—people starting spending a greater portion of their newly earned dollars on personalized services instead of mass-produced goods. Meanwhile, jobs in the relatively shrinking manufacturing sector were lost to automation or competition from cheaper workers overseas.

Burgeoning sectors of the advanced service economy like finance, insurance, marketing, education, health care, and software development needed a new kind of worker. Instead of people who could perform repetitive tasks within a tightly controlled system, they needed people who were adaptable and creative, able to work inside complicated and constantly changing organizations. Most of all, they needed people who were good at learning, because job requirements were evolving at the accelerating pace of the economy itself. Naturally, firms in the market for workers looked to the products of learned institutions: colleges. People responded to the surge in demand for college graduates by flocking onto college campuses, often with the aid of government grants and loans. From 1960 to 2010, the proportion of high school graduates going on to college increased from 45 percent to nearly 70 percent.

Many of the new collegians eschewed traditional subjects like English and history in favor of job-oriented programs. Business became the most popular major, by far, with 365,000 students earning business degrees every year.

Yet there are reasons to question how much all those new business majors actually learned. Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s 2010 book Academically Adrift tracked how much students learned in college. Those who majored in traditional subjects such as the social sciences, humanities, science, and math learned the most. Those who majored in business and communications learned the least. The study controlled for students’ demographics and previous academic history. The difference seemed to lie with intensity—students in the traditional majors were asked to work harder and longer, and learned more as a result.

Businesses, meanwhile, are perpetually dissatisfied when those college graduates arrive for work. A 2014 Gallup survey found that only 11 percent of business leaders “strongly agreed” with the proposition that recent college grads are prepared with the necessary skills to enter the workforce. By contrast, another Gallup survey found that 96 percent of college leaders thought they were doing an excellent job.

At the same time, companies don’t want to spend the money necessary to train recent college grads on the job. This has been another huge change in the nature of work. When people spent their whole careers working for a single company, it made sense to train and promote them into increasingly better jobs. But as competition between firms grew fiercer, jobs and people became more mobile, and the speed at which job requirements changed accelerated, businesses became increasingly reluctant to make that investment. One survey found a 50 percent reduction in the number of training and development employees at U.S. manufacturers between 2006 and 2013. Why spend large amounts of money to train someone who could easily jump to your competitor?

The resulting “no skills, no job; no job, no skills” dilemma for students only grew worse after the 2008 financial calamity. Every year, hundreds of thousands of undergraduates emerge from garden-variety colleges and universities lacking the selective admissions policies that send signals of cognitive ability and elite acculturation to the job market. In past recessions, college grads eventually found their way into the good parts of the labor market, albeit with some permanent scars to their long-term earnings potential. But this was the worst recession in living memory, and for many it came with new and unwanted baggage: debt. As late as the 1990s, most undergraduates finished college debt free. Now, nearly 70 percent leave owing close to $30,000 per year. For a substantial minority, the numbers are much worse.

Colleges, as it happens, have a solution: even more college, at a steep, debt-financed price. Media attention to the huge amounts of outstanding student loan debt often glosses over the fact that graduate school borrowing makes up a substantial chunk of the $1.2 trillion outstanding balance. From 2008 to 2012, the median combined undergraduate and graduate debt of people graduating with master’s degrees jumped from $44,000 to $57,600.

Universities see master’s degree programs as largely unregulated cash cows that help shore up their bottom line. Selective institutions monetize their brand names by offering expensive one-year “professional” or “executive” master’s degrees with lax admissions criteria that don’t have to be publicly disclosed. Enrolled students can defer paying off their undergraduate loans. This amounts to doubling down on the risky proposition that, armed only with academic credentials, they can break into the job market with enough success to pay even bigger loans back. Rising loan default rates suggest that many of them have been wrong.

Normally, organizations that under-serve and overcharge their customers are vulnerable to competition. But colleges are special—heavily subsidized by the government and protected by regulations that make it difficult for people with unorthodox business models to enter the market. So it’s a mark of how bad the problem has become that a growing number of people are doing it anyway.

When Jake Schwartz, the co-founder of General Assembly, went to Yale, he ignored the siren songs of recruiters from the management consultants and Wall Street banks (see Amy Binder, “Why Are Harvard Grads Still Flocking to Wall Street?,”). But after graduating, he realized that a bachelor’s degree in American studies from one of the best liberal arts schools in the world still didn’t provide much in the way of an on-ramp to a rewarding career. A self-described “classic lost and lonely twentysomething,” he bounced in and out of several jobs with “shitty bosses and crazy colleagues” before bowing to the (for a Yale graduate) inevitable and enrolling at the Wharton School.

Wharton was useful. But he learned most of what seemed important in the first semester, with the other year and a half spent partying and angling for jobs. If all the important things could be taught in a semester, why not save everyone a lot of money and time. Schwartz and three colleagues founded General Assembly in New York in 2011 with a broader purpose, as a community for entrepreneurs in the city’s growing technology sector. There were a lot of young people who wanted to live in Brooklyn and be in the cool and exciting startup world, but lacked the actual skills needed to get that crucial first job. When GA opened up classes to the public, they were surprised by the demand. Three years later, the company is teaching classes in eight American cities—the “creative class” hubs of Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York, and D.C.—along with London, Melbourne, Sydney, and Hong Kong. The company is privately held and financed by a mix of venture capital firms and private investors, including Starbucks chairman and CEO Howard Schultz.

General Assembly isn’t the only company to see a market opportunity. Dev Bootcamp, which was founded in San Francisco, focuses exclusively on web development in the Ruby on Rails programming language. Like GA, Dev Bootcamp offers an intensive, seventy- to ninety-hours-a-week, nine-week program designed to turn novices into programmers good enough to be hired by the legions of Silicon Valley companies looking for talent. Walk into the Dev Bootcamp space in San Francisco and you’ll see an environment that looks a lot like General Assembly in D.C.: thirty or forty students with laptops on couches, at desks, and in overstuffed chairs, some coding solo, others in small teams. One Dev Bootcamp student, a recent Duke University graduate, said it was the first time in his life he’d been asked to truly work hard at education.

Because there’s nothing patentable about the boot camp concept, others have gotten into the game. Even as Dev Bootcamp began opening franchises in Chicago and New York, a raft of competitors launched, with names like App Academy, Code Fellows, Fullstack Academy, HackBright Academy (for women only), Hack Reactor, Launch Academy, and RefactorU. It’s a sign of how fast the sector has evolved that Dev Bootcamp, which was founded in 2012, now bills itself as “the original coding bootcamp.” In June 2014, the company was acquired by Kaplan, the large for-profit college.

Boot camp tuitions range from $4,000 to nearly $18,000. Because boot camps are not accredited colleges, students can’t pay for them with Pell Grants or federally guaranteed loans. The boot camps market themselves as worth the price because they provide a pipeline to high-paying jobs. Some boot camps offer a full refund if students don’t get a job paying a certain salary in six months; others charge no tuition and instead take a percentage of their graduate’s first-year salary.

Koru, another company working in the space between young people and their first good job, goes a step further by combining boot camp-type educational programs with formal links to colleges and employers. Some selective liberal arts schools, including Vassar, Williams, Bates, Pomona, and Occidental, help subsidize the cost of programs for their recent graduates that are run in collaboration with employers such as the camping-supply company REI and the children’s clothing store Zulily. Students who didn’t attend sponsoring colleges can also participate, at a cost of $2,700. Koru grads at Zulily analyze historical data and plan future needs in inventory, help to decide what products to put on the site, write product descriptions, and coordinate and negotiate with vendors.

For colleges, it’s a relatively inexpensive way of assuaging the fears of parents who are considering the $200,000 price of an elite liberal arts education and don’t want their kids to join the so-called “boomerang generation” of college students who return home after graduation. As Koru co-founder Josh Jarrett said, “It’s a lot cheaper than renovating your basement.”

The new breed of boot camp entrepreneurs are sensibly going after the low-hanging fruit in the market. High-tech firms have an insatiable demand for good web developers, which means Dev Bootcamp and others can make credible claims of high job placement rates and generous starting salaries. It’s no coincidence that General Assembly and others are all opening up shop in the same constellation of cities that are cultural and economic magnets to young adults. Coding and UX are also fields where students can quickly and easily demonstrate the quality of their work product, making it easier for them to make the case for themselves in the market without formal credentials.

The obvious next target for boot camps is the expanding market for professional master’s degrees. This is really a case of one for-profit business competing with another—master’s degrees are market-priced revenue generators for “nonprofit” colleges and are treated as such. If more employers send the signal that “college degrees are not the primary qualification,” there could be a great many more students who decide that $8,000 for three months of intensive work is a much better deal than $50,000 for a master’s degree of questionable quality.

It all adds up to an unsettled, dynamic future of education, training, and work, in which traditional graduate schools compete with a bevy of new organizations built to give students exactly the skills they need to start a career, and no more.

* This article has been edited to reflect the correct cost of a course at General Assembly, which is $9,500, and to correct details of Kate Tikoian’s college and work history.

Kevin Carey

Kevin Carey directs the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation.