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Creating Opportunity in the Tech Industry Pipeline

The lack of diversity in the tech industry has been well documented by the media. Some of the roots of this problem lie in the companies themselves: there’s broad consensus (see here, here, and here) that tech company culture, and perhaps unconscious bias towards underrepresented groups, contribute to low numbers of women, black, and Hispanic employees hired and retained in tech. Some see the lack of diversity as a “pipeline” problem, arguing that the K-12 and post-secondary education system produces too few women and black and Hispanic students with the requisite computer science skills needed to compete for industry jobs. While tech firms could certainly do a better job recruiting engineers from underrepresented communities who are already in the pipeline—they hire only about half of the computer science and computer engineering students who graduate from HBCUs—increasing the supply of qualified underrepresented candidates is a necessary next step.

Most recent widespread efforts to address the pipeline problem are targeted at K-12 schools and districts. Last week President Obama announced the Computer Science for All Initiative, a $4.1 billion investment in providing computer science instruction to K-12 students across the country, which came on the heels of New York City Mayor DeBlasio’s announcement of NYC’s own Computer Science for All initiative. This is an area with which I’m deeply familiar: ScriptEd, the organization I co-founded in 2012, has taught coding before, during, and after school to nearly 1,000 students in low-income NYC high schools.

In the past several years, a market of non-traditional post-secondary providers of computer science education has formed as well. Yet few providers are focused on increasing diversity in tech, and many are structured in ways that do not promote access to underrepresented groups. The cost and duration of coding courses varies considerably from program to program. Some programs offer immersive courses that require students to attend classes full time during the work week. Other programs offer night and weekend classes. The for-profit Flatiron School, for instance, offers a full-time, 12-week, web development immersive program for $15,000. In addition to being expensive and time-consuming, students are not eligible to receive financial aid because these programs are not accredited.

To be sure, there are some efforts on the margins to promote equity and access. In partnership with the New York Tech Talent Pipeline initiative, the Flatiron school offers a web development fellowship program at no-cost to candidates without a college degree whose annual salary is below $50,000. The Access Code program at the non-profit Coalition for Queens is a no-cost 9-month immersive program specifically focused on increasing the diversity of the tech industry. The program’s second cohort of 60 students is comprised of 50% women, 50% racial minorities, and 50% immigrants. However, there are few clear standards by which to measure student success in these programs. (Flatiron’s audited 2015 jobs report is a good effort at transparency, although I’d love to know more course standards, curriculum, and assessment and students’ mastery of content.)

Recently, the US Department of Education announced a new program designed to increase opportunities for students from low-income and diverse backgrounds to access high-quality post-secondary opportunities, particularly in high-demand industries like technology. The EQUIP (Educational Quality through Innovative Partnerships) experiment creates pathways for partnerships between non-traditional education providers and accredited colleges and universities that allow the providers’ students to receive federal financial aid.

Beyond the potential to expand access to these programs, the EQUIP experiment offers a unique opportunity to define standard outcome measures across providers and begin to identify ways to scale high-quality options. Each college-provider partnership is required to engage a Quality Assurance Entity (QAE) charged with assessing whether the program meets outcome goals. In a period of increasing skepticism about traditional forms of accreditation, the EQUIP program’s QAEs will be developing new models for assessing post-secondary programs. While these new models are particularly important for non-traditional providers, they may provide key lessons for the application of quality assurance to colleges and universities, as well.

In some ways, however, the design of the EQUIP experiment falls short, and the success of the program likely hinges on its ability to overcome these challenges. First, the EQUIP experiment is unfunded and thus, participants—either the traditional institution or its non-traditional partner—assume the cost of program implementation and hiring a QAE. Moreover, for many for-profit non-traditional providers, there is little financial incentive to expend resources on EQUIP participation; there is likely already sufficient demand for their services and no financial need to enroll students who are reliant on federal aid. Furthermore, while each college-provider partnership will employ a QAE, there is currently no entity responsible for evaluating the EQUIP experiment as whole. With so many disparate entities responsible for evaluation, creating standard and consistent outcome measures across institutions will be nearly impossible without significant investment and commitment from the US Department of Education.

As the market for non-traditional post-secondary tech training expands, rigorous and comparable evidence about program effectiveness will become increasingly important for students, funders, and industry partners. I think EQUIP is a necessary, but perhaps, insufficient step in the right direction.

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