Code Switch

A coding boot camp and a liberal arts university share instructors and accreditation to create a new computer science degree, aimed at making graduates of both institutions more employable.

November 28, 2018
 
A Make School classroom and the Office of Admissions at the Dominican University of California

What do a coding boot camp founded by two college dropouts and a small liberal arts college founded in 1890 have in common? Quite a lot, it turns out.

Make School and the Dominican University of California both want their students to be more employable. But neither one thinks they can do that entirely on their own.

In an unusual partnership, the two institutions are working together to trade expertise and share accreditation to offer degrees that combine a traditional liberal arts education with cutting-edge coding skills.

Make School is helping Dominican to create a computer science minor. In exchange, the university will teach general education to Make School students as part of a new accelerated bachelor’s degree in applied computer science, which Dominican will oversee. During the multiyear “incubation” period for the degree program, Dominican will guide the boot camp as it transitions from a college alternative to an accredited degree-granting institution.

Faculty members from Dominican and Make School will teach courses jointly for the computer science program at Make School’s location in San Francisco, near Union Square. The boot camp has temporarily become a branch campus of Dominican. The university’s traditional campus is located about 20 miles north, just outside of San Rafael in Marin County.

Dominican conducted focus groups with its students as the university mulled whether to bulk up its computer science offerings, said Mary B. Marcy, Dominican’s president.

“We were stunned by the level of interest,” Marcy said.

Dominican is working toward a trial launch early next year of its computer science minor, with a plan to enroll a small number of students. But the university hopes that eventually about half of its undergraduates will take at least one course in computer science.

Make School and Dominican jointly designed the curriculum for the minor, which will be delivered by instructors from Make School. Dominican is working to develop the capacity to run the minor in-house.

The union was blessed last week by the WASC Senior College and University Commission, Dominican’s regional accreditor. Officials from both institutions praised the accreditor for being open-minded and having a policy in place to make the jointly offered degree possible.

The commission's decision is an exciting and important development for accreditation, said Judith Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

“This is the way in for alternative providers,” said Eaton. But she adds that “partnering is a lot of work.”

Jeremy Rossmann, Make School’s co-founder, viewed the boot camp as a “two-year college replacement” when he helped launch it in 2015. The boot camp seeks to give students the skills needed to get in-demand tech jobs in software engineering. Many people studying computer science in college weren’t gaining enough relevant experience to get jobs, he argued. Make School was different -- it emphasized creating over studying.

But at a time when many alternative providers are pushing digital badges and other nondegree credentials, Rossmann is headed in the opposite direction.

An MIT dropout, Rossmann doesn't want Make School to be a "college replacement" anymore -- he wants it to be a college. He wants to be able to offer his students the “safety net” of a bachelor’s degree, and says the breadth of a liberal arts education will help students better understand the societal impact of technology they create. With each iteration of Make School’s curriculum, Rossmann said the boot camp started to look more like traditional higher education.

“We were really building a college,” he said, adding that “we know we benefited tremendously from the liberal arts.”

Becoming a degree-granting institution, however, is not easy. Rossmann knew he needed help, and he began searching for a college partner that could help shepherd Make School through the accreditation process. It was a call that Marcy, president of Dominican, answered.

Map showing the distance between Make School in San Francisco and Dominican University's main campus north of the city.Ready for Change

Dominican, like many small private colleges, is under pressure. With an increasingly diverse student body, the university faces challenges with limited resources as it seeks to ensure that more of its students succeed.

For example, while the university’s finances are sound, its endowment is roughly $33 million. That relatively small amount makes it hard for Dominican to meet the financial needs of its many low-income students.

In the past few years, the call for Dominican to teach computer science has gotten louder, said Marcy. Faculty members want their students to have better digital literacy skills, and students from all disciplines know that basic knowledge of coding could give them an edge in a competitive job market.

But Dominican didn’t have any faculty members who could teach students how to build their own websites or apps, said Marcy. Creating a computer science major from scratch would cost more than $1 million, take four or five years to enroll its first students and would only benefit a small portion of the university, she said.

“We had some generalized anxieties that we needed to provide more for our students than we were,” said Marcy. “But we knew that just adding a computer science degree was probably not going to work for us.”

When Marcy was introduced to Rossmann two years ago, she saw the potential for a partnership. The faculty had just voted overwhelmingly in favor of significant changes to the university’s general education curriculum and its organization of majors and minors. She said this “fertile, creative time on campus” meant that professors were receptive to the idea of Make School teaching their students computer science.

“Faculty just rolled up their sleeves and worked really closely with the team at Make School,” said Marcy. A key concern was ensuring quality, which a faculty-led task force has overseen. Marcy was given the green light from her Board of Trustees to pursue the partnership on the condition that it would not cost the institution any money.

“Do I have worries around the margins? Sure. I want to make sure we do it right. I want to make sure that the courses are of the quality we think they will be,” Marcy said. “It’s a significant change for us,” she said, but a “more radical change for Make School.”

Geology … for Coders?

Friday is now "Science and Letters" day at Make School. Instead of attending their regular coding tutorials, students like Jasmine Anderson now devote the last day of their workweek to physical geology, English or psychology as part of a general education pilot program the boot camp started this semester.

Anderson, a 29-year-old from Florida who previously worked in retail management, moved across the country to attend Make School to try to achieve her dream of becoming a software engineer. She didn’t set out to get a college degree.

Tech companies care more about hiring people with the right expertise than the right piece of paper, said Anderson. But she can see the value of a degree. “If I have experience coding and this piece of paper, that puts me above the competition,” she said.

Learning about physical geology also has been surprisingly enjoyable for her. “I’m seeing the value as I take the class,” she said. “I’m learning things that will help me in life.”

Her instructor, Amy Young, is an assistant professor of physical science at Dominican. She lives in San Francisco, so her commute to Make School is easier than her typical journey to Dominican’s campus. Young said she agreed to take part in the pilot because she thinks the university's partnership with Make School “is an exciting and fun idea.”

Young knows her students were somewhat skeptical at the beginning of the semester.

“They self-selected for a practical education that launches them into a very specific career,” she said. “They thought, ‘I’m here to learn coding, why do I need geology?’ But I think some of them have even started to look forward to Fridays.”

Young described her students as “very driven” and said she likes how much they engage with her and ask questions.

Make School’s current class is 72 percent male and 42 percent underrepresented students of color, according to the boot camp. Half of its students come from households where the annual income is under $60,000.

“They’re very focused on problem solving,” Young said. “They want to open up the hood and see how things work.” She hopes some of her students go on to tackle environmental problems with technology. “I want them to become engaged citizens.”

General education isn’t compulsory for the minority of Make School students who hold a college degree. But the boot camp encourages its students to take general education courses, said Anne Spalding, dean of Make School. She said most students have reacted “very positively” to the prospect of getting a bachelor’s degree in applied computer science.

“We even have alumni reaching out to us, asking if they can come back and get a degree. But we haven’t figured that out yet,” said Spalding.

Incubation and Accreditation

Policy makers of all political stripes often criticize accreditors for putting red tape in the way of promising innovations. But Dominican’s accreditor did not prove to be a barrier to the partnership with a boot camp.

Last week the WASC Senior College and University Commission approved the affiliation between the two institutions. Marcy said the university now can begin admitting students into the new bachelor's degree program in applied computer science. And Dominican next semester will begin offering computer science courses to nonmajor students at its main campus.

The regional accreditor granted the noncollege Make School access to Dominican’s accreditation -- and to federal financial aid -- under an incubation policy it created a few years ago. It’s the first such incubation under the three-page standard, which allows a nonaccredited entity to evolve within the accredited university to become an accreditable one under the commission’s policies.

The policy grew out of the commission’s 2014 approval of degree programs offered by the Minerva Schools through its unusual partnership with the Keck Graduate Institute. That affiliation between a start-up, selective institution with a global reach and an accredited one helped the commission think through how to offer an incubation option for similar partnerships.

“We are trying very hard to help institutions be creative,” said Jamienne Studley, the commission’s president and CEO and a former official in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration. “The standards are broad and leave a lot of room for institutions to create the programs, pathways and models.”

The incubation rules require that Dominican retains academic control of the degree program. “They are responsible until the new creature is finally accredited,” said Studley.

Likewise, Make School also must remain in the partnership until Dominican gains its own ability to be autonomous with its computer science offerings.

“We can’t spin off until Dominican is ready to teach the minor themselves,” Rossmann said. In the future, the partnership could serve as a template to bring the computer science minor to other liberal arts colleges, Rossmann said.

Marcy said creating the incubation partnership was challenging.

“The depth of the integration and collaboration -- between two very different education institutions -- is unique,” she said. “It truly is an act of co-creation.”

Challenging a ‘False Dichotomy’

Many small colleges, particularly those without faculty members in computer science, have reached out to Dominican about the partnership, said Marcy. She said the collaboration has enabled the university to launch a series of courses in coding and app and web development with remarkable speed.

Steven Polacco, associate professor of graphic arts at Dominican, said he was “dazzled” by how quickly Make School adapted its curriculum to meet the university’s standards. Traditional universities have to think deeply about things like learning outcomes as part of the accreditation process -- something Make School hadn’t done previously. “We had to teach them to speak university,” he said.

Polacco had pushed for a computer science minor for years. But he said it kept being put on a back burner because of the expense. Dominican graduates can find jobs in graphic design without coding skills -- but they probably can’t lead teams of designers without “at least some rudimentary knowledge” of the coding language Python, Polacco said. And the new minor will change that.

Dominican is among several small institutions that are trying to “find the sweet spot” between the liberal arts and professional training, said Ashley Finley, senior adviser to the president and secretary to the board for the Association of American Colleges and Universities, who was previously associate vice president for academic affairs at Dominican.

“I think this is a fantastic lesson for other small liberal arts colleges,” she said.

Marcy hopes Dominican’s partnership with Make School will help “ameliorate the false dichotomy” between the liberal arts and in-demand skills training.

“Our goal at Dominican is to create more graduates who combine a strong grounding in the liberal arts with the technical skills necessary to be successful in graduate school or their careers,” said Marcy.

“Some of these students will be graduates in the liberal arts and sciences. Some of these students will be computer scientists,” she said. But “all of them will have the ability to think critically, communicate effectively and apply these skills to relevant work and graduate programs.”

-- Paul Fain contributed to this article.

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