Coding Bootcamps vs CS Degrees – 5 Main Differences

Web developer bootcamps have become a major part of the tech industry. Every big tech hub has at least a handful of them, and some have dozens, like San Francisco. Similar to military boot camps that turn normal citizens into combat troops, these short, intensive coding bootcamps claim that they can launch you from your current career to a new, tech-focused career in only a matter of weeks. Sounds far-fetched? You’re not alone. From the dawn of the industry in 2012 until now, programming bootcamps have gradually clawed their way into the mainstream despite the natural skepticism from the market—a typical challenge for new products—and have become an established contributor to the developer talent pipeline. In addition to traditional channels for dev talent such as 4-year universities, tech firms of all sizes continue to hire more bootcamp graduates year after year.

Given this quick rise of the bootcamp industry and the adoption from established tech firms, you might ask the question: how do coding bootcamps compare to four-year computer science programs? This is a common question I get all the time, especially from aspiring developers. Given my career path to becoming a developer, my time in the industry, and my time working with my peers—some being bootcamp grads and some CS graduates—I created this blog post to summarize the 5 main differences between completing a CS program versus a bootcamp. Of course there are dozens of other differences to consider when extensively comparing the two options, but for the sake of brevity I aim to cover just the essential ones. If your goal is to become a developer and make programming your trade (which is very different from computer science), I hope this covers your main questions and curiosities when weighing coding bootcamps versus computer science programs.

 

1. Time, Money, & Opportunity

The cost of a computer science degree versus a bootcamp has multiple layers. There’s the amount of time spent training, the actual dollar amount paid, and the opportunity cost that accumulates as a product of the former 2 factors. Let’s tackle each separately.

The average duration for a coding bootcamp is 13 weeks (a little over three months) and it’s a full time commitment. But that’s just the average. Bootcamp duration can range from 6 to 28 weeks depending on the program, while the average time for a Bachelor’s degree in a tech major is four to five years. From a time perspective, bootcamps can be very enticing.

We can see more disparity when it comes to dollar cost: the average bootcamp costs approximately $10,500, while on average a degree will cost you at least $9,650/year or $24,930/year at a university, for in-state and out-of-state tuition respectively.[1] Multiply that by 4 years for a Bachelor’s degree, and we get ~$38,600 for in-state and ~$99,720 for out-of-state tuition. In summary, bootcamps are definitely cheaper than a four-year degree.

Now let’s talk about opportunity cost. Most bootcamps are 3 to 6 months long, and the average bootcamp grad takes 6 months to get a job after graduation.[2] So within a 4 year window, a bootcamp student will have the opportunity to graduate from bootcamp and work 3 years at an average salary of ~$65,000 per year. Meanwhile, a college student will still be in school within the same time frame, or just about to graduate.[3] This opportunity cost can accumulate to over ~$150,000 over the course of 3 years. Quite a substantial amount of money!

 

2. Job Opportunities & Career Growth

The entry-level job market for developers is lucrative for bootcamp grads and CS graduates alike, and they share similar average salaries, around $65,000 per year on a national scale. In larger tech markets such as Seattle or Silicon Valley, where the cost of living is higher, average salaries will be closer to $75,000 per year. According to research, CS grads often become software applications developers, computer systems analysts, and web developers. Meanwhile bootcamp graduates often land software engineer, web developer and front end web developer jobs. Both are comparable in job title and compensation post-graduation in my experience.[4][5][6]

Also, the major selling point for bootcamps is often the job placement numbers, and many bootcamps openly advertise them to the public. The majority of successful bootcamps boast a 90%+ placement rate within six months at companies of all sizes. From large corporations like Adobe, Apple, Google, Cisco, Progressive and Expedia, to local tech startups that have been in business for less than 5 years. CS programs on the other hand don’t openly advertise the job placement rates of their students, so it’s difficult to compare to bootcamps in regards to job placement. [8][9]

With the current state of the industry, CS degrees also have an advantage in regards to highly specialized and senior level roles. Recruiters typically require an undergraduate or graduate degree in CS (or equivalent academic credential in a engineering field) for upper-level roles at tech companies. If you don’t have this background and you’re applying for the role from outside the company, your chances of landing the role will be lower, but not impossible (a.k.a. you’ll have a hard time beating their resume filtering systems). Instead, you’ll have a decent shot of getting the job if you know someone from the inside, and you’re chances will be pretty good if you’re applying for the role internally. You might already work for the company, just in a different department.

Note: According to a survey in 2016 by Stack Overflow, 69% of developers in the industry are allegedly self-taught and don’t have CS degrees. That’s 2 out of every 3 developers!

 

3. Likelihood of Being Accepted

CS programs are in high-demand and are often very difficult to get into—sometimes the hardest major on campus, depending on your school. The average GPA required to apply is between 3.6 to 4.0 GPA at most top universities, plus a plethora of extracurricular activities and math-focused prerequisites common to other engineering degrees. This often cuts many interested students off before they can apply. Of those that do meet the high requirements of a CS program, computer science departments will typically accept only 30% of those applicants, often less.[7] If you’re serious about majoring in computer science, you’ll need to be on your A-game the moment you enter college. A 3.6 GPA is the equivalent of an A in high school, and a 3.2 GPA is a B+.

In contrast, acceptance rates among coding bootcamps vary wildly, from 100% to single digits, because each bootcamp has different criteria for accepting students. Some bootcamps accept solely based on test results during your admissions process, while others do interviews and personality tests—if you have the drive and motivation to work hard, then you’re in. And some bootcamps have gender or ethnic prerequisites. Overall, most bootcamps aren’t as standardized as traditional CS programs, and as a result, their students have an easier time joining the school and often come from a wider range of backgrounds and personality types, from current developers to people with no prior coding or engineering experience. If you’re looking for a quick career change, you’re much more likely to find a bootcamp that fits you, your learning style, and your current experience level, whereas most CS programs are much harder to gain access to for the average person.[4] 

 

4. Goals of the Schools

The curriculum of coding bootcamps will vary from school to school, but all of them share one goal: to transform you into a job-ready developer in a short amount of time. In a nut-shell, most bootcamps will follow the same process to train you. They’ll teach you different programming languages, how to build practical applications like Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr, and then finally a framework or tool that makes your life easier when you code larger scale projects. An example of this would be learning Python and then learning Django—a Python framework that makes building scalable applications a breeze. Furthermore, some bootcamps will specialize in teaching data science or go more in-depth into algorithms (practicing computer logic) and basic computer education (networking, internet, etc).

In contrast, computer science programs are focused on a broader educational experience that specializes in the theory of Computer Science and Engineering. You’ll focus on topics such as computer logic (algorithms), data structures, data management, bit manipulation, and hardware workings, and learn their intricacies from top to bottom. You’ll learn to think like an engineer and how computers think. In fact, most computer science and computer engineering programs fall under the engineering school at universities, so they have many of the same prerequisites, such as upper-level calculus courses and technical writing. By the end, students will have a deep understanding of computer systems, but will often lack a well-rounded portfolio. As a CS student, you’ll build terminal applications and solve complex algorithms, which are important concepts to learn, but are often not enough to get a  job as a developer right out of college. In addition to your degree, you’ll need to spend a few months teaching yourself how to program and build a small portfolio on the side to show employers. Given your strong foundation in CS, you’ll likely pick up programming quickly and much faster than the average person.

In summary, the bootcamp curriculum and CS curriculum have different goals. Bootcamps are designed to teach you how to code and to get you a job as a developer in a short amount of time. Once you have your foot in the door, it’s up to you what you want to do. Many bootcamp grads start as developers, and move on to different tech-related roles in the companies they work for, such as a technical project manager. In contrast, CS programs are designed to turn you into a Computer Scientist or Engineer (someone with a deep understanding of how computers work). And with this knowledge you have multiple career paths to choose from. Although common, becoming a developer isn’t your only option. There are many jobs in tech that require CS degrees and don’t entail hands-on programming.

Note: Similar to how CS students are known to attend bootcamps to brush up on practical job-skills as a programmer, some bootcamp grads take CS courses to gain a deeper understanding of computer science.

 

5. Diversity & Student Body

Despite recent efforts among companies and universities, diversity is still a major issue in the tech industry and most CS programs are still male-dominated. Only 15% of classes comprise of women, and almost 60% of CS students are Caucasian.[10] The remaining demographic makeup is mostly students of Asian decent, with few Latino and African-American students.

In contrast, bootcamps tend to have more people from diverse backgrounds than a typical college CS class. On average, bootcamp cohorts are 40% women versus 15% in CS programs. Ethnic diversity is improving as well with Latinos making up 20% of a bootcamp class versus 6.8% at a CS program. And 3.2% of CS programs are African-Americans versus 5% in a programming bootcamp. Keep in mind that students at bootcamps are generally older than the college population as well. The typical student is around 28 years-old, with most ranging between 23 to 35 years-old, and has seven years of experience in the workforce.[2] Many bootcamps, especially non-profits, also specialize in assisting students who’ve recently lost their jobs, or find ways to encourage diversity through scholarships. Furthermore, some bootcamps are strictly for diverse students, such as female-only or minority-only programs.[12][13]

 

Conclusion

I actually did some of this research a few years ago, when I was at a crossroads in my career. I knew I wanted to get a career in tech, but I didn’t know how. And like you, I was wondering the same questions about coding bootcamps versus CS programs. Ultimately I decided to attend a coding bootcamp called Coding Dojo. Given my financial situation and interests (I wanted to learn programming specifically), a bootcamp was simply a better fit for me. But that doesn’t mean a CS program isn’t right for you. In fact, the goals for CS degrees and bootcamps are fundamentally very different. A comparable example is the difference between going to design school and only learning Adobe Photoshop. You can get a job as a graphic designer with either option, but Adobe Photoshop is a specific skill, while design school is less about specific skills and more about your fundamental understanding of the field. And gaining this deep understanding takes more time, and there’s more to cover.

At the end of the day, only you will know what’s best for you. All I can do is share the information I’ve uncovered over the years from my time in the industry. Just keep in mind that not all colleges are the same, not all bootcamps are the same, and bootcamps and colleges are different institutions. Regardless of which option you choose, please remember one thing: to stay relevant as a developer, neither a degree nor a bootcamp is sufficient without constantly improving and honing your skills. Graduating from college or a bootcamp is only the beginning.

 

Disclaimer: This is all based on my experience, research and the experience from people I know who have gone through a computer science-related major or a bootcamp.

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