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The high cost of a free coding bootcamp

Students at Lambda School say the program hasn’t delivered on its promise

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Illustration by 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.

The startup ethos of prioritizing efficiency, speed, and scale is incompatible with many people’s ability to actually learn

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.

These ISAs are the bedrock of Lambda’s program. They allow the school to market itself as an “accessible” computer science education. But critics, like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), have warned that ISAs carry many of the pitfalls of traditional private student loans, “with the added danger of deceptive rhetoric and marketing that obscure their true nature.”

In many ways, programs like Lambda are Silicon Valley’s answer to the problems of mobility and educational access. In the US, where student loan debt is at $1.5 trillion, schools that allow students to defer tuition can fill an important educational gap. But the model is only successful if the curriculum prepares them to land a job. In the case of Lambda’s UX program, many students felt like the marketing had promised and the education had under-delivered. “I keep thinking next month will be better,” Surber says. “Next unit they’ll have it fixed. Next unit they’ll stop treating us like crap. But so far, nothing has changed.”

Lambda’s intentions appear to be well-meaning, if also a bit self-serving. Of course, Silicon Valley’s solution to upward mobility and education boils down to teaching people to code. After all, engineering jobs demand a skilled workforce, and these gigs pay remarkably well. But the startup ethos of prioritizing efficiency, speed, and scale is incompatible with many people’s ability to actually learn.

Still, it’s easy to see the appeal of a school built upon a financial agreement that aligns the schools’ incentives with the goals and aspirations of its students. With the ISA, if a student succeeds in landing a job, the school gets paid. If a student can’t find work within five years after completing the program, the ISA is automatically dissolved. “If we promise someone that our education will help them get a job, and we’re wrong about that, why should we be paid?” CEO Austen Allred asked earnestly in a blog post on Medium.

His reasoning makes sense on paper. Students who hustle can transform their lives within the nine months of the online program. Those who don’t might have spent almost a year without a full-time income, but at least they’re not swimming in a pile of debt. “Lambda School doesn’t just train people; Lambda School bets on them,” Allred wrote.

The financial setup is likely why Lambda has such a diverse group of students. In a recent survey, 49 percent self-identified as non-white. In the course of reporting this story, I spoke to a young data analyst in San Francisco, a former medic in a police department in New Jersey, and a bartender in Honolulu, Hawaii. All said the program appealed to them because of the world-class curriculum and the practical and symbolic promise of the ISA.

Lambda offers these students the opportunity to become “team leads” while taking classes. A single Lambda cohort can have upwards of 60 people, but students start and end their days in small clusters, with leaders facilitating group discussions. Caleb Hicks, who heads up Lambda’s learning department, said this model makes sense on a couple of levels. “You don’t need a PhD to teach you how to tie your shoes,” he tells The Verge. “You just need someone who knows how to tie your shoes.” The model also allows Lambda to scale: team leads make roughly $13 an hour, a more reasonable price tag than a full-time instructor. “We can’t have an instructor for every group,” Hicks says. “You can’t run a business like that.”

Lambda calls them “world class” industry experts

Allred and Hicks have taken pains to understand what students are going through and create resources to help. In 2019, Lambda offered 50 students a living stipend of $2,000 a month. All students get access to free therapy, and some can apply for housing, which Lambda will pay for during the program.

The school also has a team of people dedicated to helping students find jobs. In 2019, Forbes reported that 86 percent of Lambda graduates are hired within 180 days. “If you are a student who shows up and works hard, we will never give up on you. Ever,” Allred said. It’s clear he really believes that.

In May 2019, Tyler Nishida quit his job at the Hilton bar in Honolulu to enroll in Lambda’s user experience (UX) program. Three days before he was set to start, he was told that his enrollment had been deferred because he hadn’t submitted a required pre-course assignment, though it showed up as “completed” in the student portal. Now, he had to spend an extra six weeks without an income, waiting for classes to begin.

Nishida wasn’t the only student to experience issues with Lambda’s enrollment. On Twitter, one student complained about being switched to a different cohort days before her program was set to start, after she’d already quit her job. Even Surber didn’t know if she’d actually been accepted until she got a call from student services a week after she’d started her lessons. “I was like, ‘That’s good, I started classes already,’” she says, laughing. “[The person on the phone] seemed a little confused.” (She and Nishida ended up being placed in the same cohort.) 

Part of the confusion seems to stem from Lambda’s rapid growth. The school now has over 2,500 students; it’s doubled in size in the past year. There are 169 full-time employees supporting the large student body. Of these, 85 are instructors; Lambda calls them “world class” industry experts.

Yet, many of the classes in the UX program seemed haphazard and poorly thought out to Nishida and some of his classmates. Once, during a drawing lesson that was ostensibly related to product design, students watched as the teacher sketched on a white sheet of paper. He said he was drawing a town, but the glare on the paper was so bright they couldn’t see what he was doing. When they spoke up, he grabbed a bedsheet and conducted the rest of the lesson under a makeshift curtain. To some, it felt like he hadn’t thought through the lesson — either the content he was presenting or how he was going to present it. “It highlights the unprofessionalism, incompetence, and disorganization of Lambda School’s UX program,” one student wrote in a note to Lambda.

“The process takes time.”

Another time, Nishida says, a teacher admitted it was his first time using the tool he was trying to show them. It often sounded like he and the other instructors were reading off a script. 

On August 23rd, 2019, Nishida wrote Lambda a letter spelling out his concerns and the concerns of some of the other students. “Our professors seem like good guys and they know UX. But they also seem like they just walked in with like borderline zero knowledge of the curriculum,” he wrote.

Nishida was also frustrated that many of the assignments seemed to come from free training materials, like Daily UI, which anyone can access on the internet. “We are literally paying for something that we can do for free,” he added in his note to the school.

Overall, Nishida says, he and the other students in his class weren’t getting nearly the level of instruction they’d hoped for. “I’m grateful for the opportunity that Lambda has given me to improve my life, but that doesn’t mean they get to waste my time,” he wrote, quoting another student. “I’m paying for this, and Lambda needs to provide the quality product they promised.”

Three months later, the interim UX program manager announced that they were pausing enrollment in the UX program so they could improve the curriculum. “You have all provided us with an incredible amount and quality of feedback, and we will be using it to inform our curriculum efforts,” he said.

Nishida was relieved for future students. But the news didn’t really help him. He and his classmates began using Twitter to complain about their experience and urge Lambda to dissolve their ISAs. “We shouldn’t have to be bound to an ISA-contract for a UX course that was falsely advertised,” one wrote.

Students were also concerned about Lambda’s ongoing legal issues in the state of California. In April, the California Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education (BPPE) issued a $75,000 fine to the school for failing to properly register as a postsecondary institution. In an interview with Business Insider, Allred said he had every intention of complying. “We’re not trying to be one of those companies that avoids regulation.”

“Many of us feel that we deserve a discount because your product didn’t deliver on its advertisements and promises.”

Yet, by December 2019, the company had still not received the required approval, and students began to complain that they shouldn’t have been let into the program if Lambda wasn’t allowed to legally operate.

On Reddit, Allred had said the lack of accreditation should not be a concern. “We’re working actively with BPPE right now,” he wrote. “The process takes time, but we’re working with them to comply. There is no impact to students right now.”

But the lack of accreditation did matter. Without it, the bureau couldn’t intervene on students’ behalf if something went wrong with the program. “Any complaints students may wish to file with the Bureau will fall outside the Bureau’s jurisdiction because Lambda School was not approved at the time of their enrollment,” the BPPE wrote.

Cecilia Ziniti, Lambda’s general counsel, explained the law isn’t clear about programs that offer ISAs. “BPPE materials have previously noted ISAs are in a legal gray zone,” she wrote in a statement to The Verge. “Like with any emerging model, the regulatory process is complex and takes time. In general, though, we love regulation and welcome the oversight. We’re not trying to work outside of the system — we’re willing to stand by a consumer-friendly model and how it fits within existing law.” 

While Lambda was committed to improving the UX curriculum for future students, things didn’t get better for Nishida. In January, he decided to write a second letter with the support of 20 other students explaining his ongoing frustrations. “UX6 has been a very bad experience and it is not worth the money,” he wrote. “Many of us feel that we deserve a discount because your product didn’t deliver on its advertisements and promises.”

Shortly after, students began hearing that, on a case-by-case basis, Lambda would let them out of their ISAs if they didn’t want to stay in the program. Surber and Nishida both took the deal.

In a statement provided to The Verge, Allred said “our number one priority is making our students’ experience as good as it can be. They’re here to change their lives, and I take that responsibility extremely seriously… In this particular case, giving these individual students options was the right decision. We value student feedback more than anything; we’re constantly listening, learning, and improving.”

The complaints about Lambda’s curriculum extend beyond the UX cohort. An anonymous student in the Web20 class says her team lead — the person she was supposed to turn to for questions about the course content — was unable to provide answers to even basic technical problems. Once, a student asked about the difference between JavaScript array methods, like push versus concat or forEach versus map, the team lead said they were interchangeable. (They are not.) 

As a result, students fell behind. “Lambda is pushing students through who should not be continuing,” she says. “I would have teammates who could not code really basic things.”

The Verge had an outside engineering expert, Ben Sandofsky, review Lambda’s iOS curriculum and give feedback on the overall quality. Sandofsky, who has 16 years of programming experience and previously worked as a mobile engineer at Twitter before starting the popular iPhone camera app Halide, says the program doesn’t prepare people to pass even a first-round tech interview. “After looking through Lambda School’s curriculum, I’d say students are going to struggle with very basic questions you’ll get on first phone screens,” he explains. 

His concerns are mirrored by the experience of a current student leader who said that, after applying to numerous programming positions, he hasn’t been able to land a job. “Most of my interviewers have been saying ‘you don’t qualify,’” he says.

Sandofsky also looked at Lambda student projects on GitHub and was shocked at the basic errors students were making. “Out of ten student projects available, five should have failed,” he says. “It appears that they all passed. I reached out to one of the students who made a mistake to ask if he ever received feedback, and he said he had not.”

He also says that many of the topics Lambda covers aren’t things students should have to pay for. “The curriculum itself is indistinguishable from any of the free resources available online,” he added. “It’s all very surface level. That’s to be expected if you’re targeting junior engineers, but at the same time, they go way too broad. It’s ridiculous that they spend two lectures about The Block Chain — with a student project — while skimming over basic iOS fundamentals.” 

Some students also began to feel that Allred publicly misled them about Lambda’s success rate. On Twitter, he told one user that the “First track just graduated. Hit 100% hired but was VERY small sample size.” In a Slack conversation the previous month, the UX program manager revealed just how small that sample was. “Of the UX students that have reached hiring stage we are now at 100%! (1 of 1),” he wrote.

Students who enroll in Lambda might not have to pay tuition, but that doesn’t mean there’s no cost. Some, like Nishida, quit their jobs in order to attend school full-time. Others work nights and weekends in order to make ends meet. 

In a Slack channel dedicated to mental health, screenshots of which were reviewed by The Verge, students spoke about their struggles with anxiety, depression, PTSD, and addiction. Some were exhausted trying to juggle the program with their personal and financial responsibilities.

“Doing Lambda during the week and working double shifts every weekend has really begun to tear me down,” one wrote. “I havnt been able to sleep at all. I havnt had an off day since I began I’m just kinda losing my mind. I’m really worried i’ll fall back into my old patterns of addiction.” 

In another particularly disturbing instance, a now-deleted post from a student prompted a flurry of suicide prevention resources and encouragement to reach out to others in the room. “Whoever called the police on me this isn’t appreciated,” the original poster later wrote. 

Another time, a student expressed doubt about his ability to ever find a job. “This is causing a huge depressive own spiral, and on top of that the walls are closing in fast, as I need a new place to live soon with dwindling funds,” he says. “I’d like to have been hopeful that at this point in Computer Sci that I’d be hire-able, but that just does not seem to be possible.” 

“It’s all part of the process,” Allred responded. “Trust the process.”

By September, the same student said he felt “at [his] end” with Lambda. “I know we are told to ‘trust the process’ but what if the process has seemed to fail me?” he asked. “What am I supposed to do or say to that? Have I just wasted 11 months of my life and money to chase a dream that maybe was not something I could achieve in such a short time? I am at the end of my rope here and nothing seems to be helping.”

A month later, the student again referenced Allred’s comment, asking “how to keep believing” in the phrase “trust the process.” “I am nowhere near able to compete in the job market, yet alone against other Lambda students after a year of trying at this,” he wrote. “Knowing this has left me with very few choices on what to do next, as I have completely drained all my savings to try and rough this out.”

“They’re only hurting people who are already basically exploited.”

“Trust the process” has become Lambda’s unofficial company mantra; Allred and his associates offer it as fortune cookie wisdom to many students in the face of their concerns. As one student wrote in Slack, the phrase is used “too liberally” and often as the de facto response to criticism and frustration. “Because the curriculum/instruction is generally unbalanced and incomplete, it’s kind of an open secret that even TLs [team leads] have to rely on outside sources — not as a supplement to Lambda curriculum — but as a replacement for it (depending on the topic),” the message reads. “Because many are forced to go outside the curriculum, the ‘process’ can be really different depending on the student… It all depends on whose process you’re talking about and each student’s background preparation.”

It echoes the response that Lambda’s former head of career services, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, got when she tried to start a diversity initiative at the school. “Lambda School is one of these places that had this fantastic idea behind making education accessible and diversity and inclusion,” she says. Yet, when she tried to start the diversity program, she was told not to rush the process. They needed to ask students if they wanted to attend bias training. “I was like ‘they need it! The teaching assistants need it too!’” she says. “I would hear that I was being a ‘bulldog’ and ‘feisty Latina.”

Finally, when she was five months pregnant, Lambda told her that she hadn’t lived up to their expectations and they were going to fire her. “I was like, ‘you didn’t send me any documentation,’” she says. This ultimately got them to reverse the decision. Shortly afterward, she decided to quit anyway. “They’re only hurting people who are already basically exploited,” she says. 

“There is both peril and promise in these arrangements”

(When asked about the interaction, Allred disputed the claim that the employee made the decision to quit. “It is not accurate that she left of her own accord,” he says. He added that he’d never heard complaints about her being called a feisty Latina. “Nothing like those statements was reported to us by her or anyone else about her, and if they were, we’d take immediate action. Out of respect for the employee, we can’t comment in deeper detail on this situation.”)

Today, Lambda has made improvements to its diversity training and mental health resources, building off what the head of career services had begun. All team leads now have weekly classes on how to listen empathetically and resolve conflicts. In October, Allred announced that the school was partnering with health care company Modern Health to provide free therapy and coaching for students. “Mental health is a critical component of long-term success for anybody — students and employees alike,” he said in a statement to The Verge

Yet even this won’t help students who feel trapped by poor instruction and bound in ironclad ISAs. A close reading of Lambda’s financial agreements shows the school can take swift action against students who underreport their incomes or fail to make a payment, even auditing their tax returns to find their actual wages. If a student says they are making less than they actually are, Lambda is able to increase their monthly payment by 150 percent or add a $1,000 monthly fee.

“There is both peril and promise in these arrangements,” says Brad Bernthal, a law professor at Colorado Law School. “While I see risks, I do not see anything here that is a disaster on its face.” He noted, however, that students who sign the ISA abdicate their right to collective action, meaning they can’t sue the school as a group — a set up that’s typical in consumer agreements.

Luckily, Lambda allowed the unhappy students in the user experience program, including Surber and Nishida, to drop out and cancel their ISAs. But the experience left them both shaken. Surber, who struggles with depression, says it’s been hard to get out of bed. While she now has a home, she’s still looking for work, and her dreams of landing a tech job seem far away. “I have been super stressed about what I’m going to do next,” she says. “I have no idea what my plan is. I’m just trying to get a plan together so I can move myself forward.” 

Allred, for his part, is focused on growing the program. The school plans to expand into new fields, including cybersecurity and nursing. “If there’s one thing I’m good at in life, it’s growing something quickly, building hype for something quickly,” Allred said in a podcast interview, as reported by The Information. “That’s kind of my superpower.”