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The Pros and Cons of IT Boot Camps Versus Degree Programs

With students turning to accelerated training as an alternative to traditional IT and information security degree programs, experts say the question of boot camps versus college depends largely on students' goals.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in IT-related fields is projected to grow by 15 percent by 2031, with demand for IT security professionals specifically growing 35 percent by 2031 across industries. Meanwhile, students are increasingly turning to accelerated training programs known as "boot camps" as a faster, more cost-effective alternative to four-year degrees to gain IT skills — a trend that’s coincided with recent declines in higher ed enrollment.

While it may be tempting for some to weigh the pros and cons of boot camps against traditional IT-related degree programs given those trends, the comparison is apples to oranges, according to Humayun Zafar, an information security and assurance professor at Kennesaw State University who's created and taught several cybersecurity cerfication courses through Coursera.

Zafar said the question of whether to attend an accelerated certification course depends on each student's goals. He added that while a reputable boot camp for basic software development or coding skills is often a sound option for students primarily seeking entry-level IT careers, others across skill levels may also use them as an avenue for continued professional development.

“For most of the boot camps, their end goal is to ensure that a person can break into a field at an entry-level position. Let’s say they want to get into a management position. At that point, I think, your college degrees start coming into play, but that can actually vary with the industry as well,” he said, noting that a combination of degree programs and other professional development courses can help gain skills for upper-level C-suite career paths.

“If you're looking at the upper-level management-level positions, a lot of them will probably require a master's degree. It comes down to what that individual actually wants to achieve for themselves,” he added. “If you're talking about getting into the C-suite, then you are going to have a different set of requirements for certain individuals, but if you're looking at someone who wants to stick to that entry-level, mid-career path, then you don't necessarily need MBAs and so forth.”

But no two boot camps are created equally, according to Barry Sandrew, director of entrepreneurship at Westcliff University, which offers traditional degree paths in IT-related fields alongside boot camps for skills such as coding.

Sandrew noted that the effectiveness of boot camps can vary widely, with camps like CodeSmith and Devmountain reporting job placement at around 90 percent, according to rankings last year from Optimal, and others failing to deliver on their career placement promises, leaving students out of the IT job market despite having paid for and completed the training.

“We’re looking to place our students at a higher level. There are students who just want to take a boot camp and are looking for an entry-level web development or coding position, and we have tremendous career services to help them get that job,” he said, adding that C-suite positions and upper-level, specialized IT and cybersecurity positions require continued education beyond what many boot camps offer.

“There are boot camps that really prepare students, and there are boot camps there to make a buck,” he added. “We want to see them placed, and that’s one of the reasons why we have gone the extra mile to hire tech recruiters, and the extra mile in terms of ‘soft skills’ … I think we can get people placed much sooner, because of the preparation we are doing.”

Echoing Zafar, Sandrew said earning certifications through IT boot camp programs can serve as a means for those already in IT careers across the board to refresh their knowledge as technology changes.

“I think that the field is changing so quickly, if they’re not on top of things on their own, it makes sense for them to come in and refresh,” he said. “You have to stay on top of things, and if you’ve been away from it for five years or whatever, it’s good to get a refresher.”

“It’s an ongoing learning process, and you have to continue to hone your skills and improve your portfolio if you want to get the right type of job," he added.
Amy McLaughlin, a cybersecurity expert with the Consortium for School Networking, said having multiple avenues for IT training and professional development in general will ultimately help close the current cybersecurity talent shortage and keep existing IT security staff up to date as cyber attacks continue to disrupt daily operations across both public- and private-sector industries during COVID-19.

“The world changes so fast that you just need to be able to bring people to speed quickly. I think that financially, [boot camps] can be more viable. The important thing is that boot camp programs need to help people connect with employers because if you have a boot camp program or a four-year degree program, if you can't get hooked up to an employer who's willing to hire you, that’s really challenging,” she said.

“Cybersecurity is a field where it used to be that there was one cybersecurity person that did everything. Now, it's branched out into specializations within cybersecurity, and the field changes so rapidly,” she added. “It's a really exciting time where there's just so many options for people to expand into the cybersecurity space and do it in any one number of ways that give them the tools that they need to be successful.”

McLaughlin said students leaving high school now have more options at their disposal when it comes to workforce training options and higher education programs for fields like IT and cybersecurity, especially as more universities and colleges launch their own accelerated training programs aside from traditional degree programs instead of competing with the boot camp model.

For students hoping to gain entry-level certifications, advance within their fields or gain more specialized IT knowledge needed for C-suite jobs, she said it’s important to look at the results of a boot camp as a metric for whether to attend a boot camp, as well as students' individual career goals. She said deciding to attend a boot camp or degree program may not be an either-or question.

“When deciding what boot camp program [or any program] to attend, ask how many graduates who were employed after graduation had experience or a degree before entering the boot camp program. It’s helpful to understand if graduates are using the program to launch a career or to enhance an existing career,” she said.
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.