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The High Cost of a Free Coding Bootcamp

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Turmoil at a coding school.

Students at the Lambda School coding bootcamp say the program has not delivered on its promises.

Credit: Alex Castro/The Verge

Bethany Surber was sleeping on friends' couches and living out of her car when she first heard about Lambda School, a buzzy coding bootcamp that promised world-class instructors and a top-tier curriculum. Best of all, it wouldn't cost a cent — at least not up front. The school encouraged students to defer tuition until they landed a stable job, then pay back a share of their income.

Surber and her boyfriend, an instructor at the local community college, quickly started making plans. She'd quit her job as a patient services representative at the hospital in Tacoma, Washington, and they'd move in together while she took classes. Then, when she got a high-paying tech gig, she'd renovate his house, maybe take herself on a vacation.

Lambda offered Surber a chance at a life she'd never had — one of job opportunities, tech money, prestige. She'd watched as companies like Amazon and Microsoft changed the fabric of the Seattle area, bringing massive new developments and six-figure salaries that sucked talent from nearby Tacoma. Now, she finally had a chance to be part of that change.

From the beginning, however, the online class wasn't what Surber or her classmates had expected. The instructors changed week to week and often seemed to have no idea what the students had already covered. The curriculum advertised on the website never fully materialized. The online portal where they were supposed to find their homework assignments rarely matched up with what they were learning.

Some of the changes were things Lambda students had requested. (The school prides itself on being incredibly responsive to user feedback.) But the constant state of flux proved difficult for first-time designers.

By January 2020, six months into the program, Surber's group was in revolt. The program wasn't worth the money, they wrote in a letter to Lambda's leadership. They felt like test subjects in a lab. Many asked to get out of the income-sharing agreements (ISAs) they'd signed, which stipulated that they had to hand over 17 percent of their income once they started making $50,000 or more until their $30,000 tuition was paid off.


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