It seemed like a match made in heaven. Dominican University of California needed something fresh. The college wanted to offer students a hands-on learning experience in a lucrative tech field blooming in the Bay Area. Make School, a San Francisco-based gaming company turned for-profit educational institution, was already offering a short-term tech boot camp, designed to meet that same goal.
Together, they envisioned a setup through which Dominican students could take computer science classes and earn a minor and Make School students could take a few classes from Dominican faculty and earn a bachelor’s in applied computer science in only two years.
The partnership, established in 2018, would be the first of its kind. Although it had special approval from Dominican’s accreditor, Make School’s program received little oversight. No one was watching out for warning signs, financial or otherwise, of issues at Make School.
When Make School suddenly closed in 2021, citing financial problems, Dominican leaders were in uncharted territory, left to figure out how to help 167 students continue their education. The majority left the program without any credential to show for their time and effort.
Nicola Pitchford, Dominican’s vice president for academic affairs at the time and now its president, says the university did what it could to help the students, but she acknowledges that it was “a really lumpy ride.”
“There’s not yet a regulatory framework that provides clear guidance and boundaries for institutions trying to do this,” Pitchford says. “We would have been very grateful for not having to pioneer quite so much.”
Make School’s downfall, as documented by a Student Borrower Protection Center report provided to The Hechinger Report, should sound alarm bells about partnerships like this, advocates for students warn.
In these partnerships, the colleges typically just put their name on the programs, while the boot camp companies recruit students, develop curricula, and teach classes. Such arrangements are quietly proliferating with few, if any, quality controls in place to protect students. At least 75 such partnerships exist between colleges and three of the country’s top boot camp provider companies: edX, ThriveDX and Fullstack Academy. The colleges stand to make hundreds of thousands of dollars per year on these deals, without having to do much work, according to reviews of the contracts obtained through public records requests.
When students enroll in a traditional college, they know the institution has met certain standards set by the federal and state governments and accrediting agencies. If their education doesn’t meet those standards, or if their school lies to them or closes, they are entitled to certain protections, including, in some cases, debt cancelation. But boot camp programs, which typically take two years or less to complete and do not offer academic credit, are unregulated.
“What you have is trusted brand-name schools, from community colleges to state universities, knowing that they have these valuable brands, and literally renting them out to for-profit companies,” says Ben Kaufman, director of research and investigations at the Student Borrower Protection Center. “The students will take on the debt because they trust the school, then go to a program that is usually very superficial.”
On the Make
After starting in 2012 and pivoting from gaming to education in 2014, Make School operated for years as an unlicensed educational institution.
It received a citation in 2018 from California’s Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education for operating without approval. Nevertheless, later that year, it joined forces with Dominican, a nonprofit college in San Rafael, California. At the time, college leaders were unaware that Make School was operating as an unapproved educational institution, a spokesperson from Dominican says.