A moment of enormous opportunity
Making society more equitable through expanded access to STEM education
America is burning.
The compounding effects of an incredibly incendiary, divisive, and volatile presidency, trade wars, war wars, a global pandemic, the geopolitical and economic fallout resulting in the highest unemployment rates in the US since the Great Depression, added to the backdrop of the worst wealth disparity in modern history, and now the greatest Civil — really HUMAN — Rights Movement the world has ever seen, have added up to the perfect storm that will no longer allow us to ignore the festering wounds we’ve refused to address for decades.
This is a fire cleanse.
I could write an entire thesis on this topic, analyzing every step that led us to this moment, but I’ll give it a very narrow focus instead, an issue we can actually address now: STEM education. Many students in the U.S. attend schools that don’t offer a full range of STEM courses, lack teaching staff and lab space, and don’t have adequate equipment to conduct experiments; in other words, they lack the very basics low-poverty school districts consider foundational necessities.
- only 26% of high school seniors attended schools that offered some type of computer science course
- 47% of fourth graders at high-poverty schools do a hands-on experiment once per week, compared to 61% of students in low-poverty schools
- 62% of eighth grade teachers at high-poverty schools report having the resources they need to teach math, while 79% of their low-poverty-district counterparts do
- 23% of teachers in high-poverty schools hold math degrees, while 31% in low-poverty schools do
- 52% of high-poverty schools offer a statistics class, while 88% of wealthier schools do
- 39% of high-poverty schools offer AP Physics compared to 75% of high-income schools
“High-poverty schools” are defined as “three-quarters or more of enrolled students qualify for free or reduced-price school meals”. By that definition, 2015 data shows a full 25% of all U.S. school children attend high-poverty schools. In 2020, almost 30 million K-12 students in the US received free lunch, 12.5M students are attending high-poverty schools which lack basic resources like labs, teachers, desks, books, computers, internet access etc. Poor students receive an education that leaves them entirely unprepared to enter college and a high-earning career field in the traditional way — 4 year college, masters, PhD—not for lack of interest or ability but for lack of access to the basic education needed to open that path to them. Many STEM fields such as biology, chemistry, physics, or medicine are therefore not an option.
That’s where coding bootcamps come in. I am a high school dropout and immigrant, I left my home country on my own at age 18, moved to NYC, and began working in photo production. By the time I decided to look into software engineering, I had been out of school for 17 years, worked in various fields over the past decade and a half, and had maxed out my earning potential in the childcare job I took after my own son was born. My salary had barely kept up with inflation, I was uninsured, I did not have real savings or any kind of retirement account. After some consideration, learning to code seemed like an obvious choice to transfer into a new career, so I started taking some free courses online, completed the free bootcamp prep many bootcamps offer, and, much to my surprise, made it past the interview process to get accepted into Flatiron School. Ta da.
Now, none of that would have been possible for me without a significant boost from my parents and my partner. You see, I didn’t even own a computer three years ago. And I didn’t have any disposable income nor time to invest into a path that seemed closed off anyway, so it had never even occurred to me that I could enter into a STEM field, that programming could be a career for me. Not only “a path” but an amazing path that would change my quality of life in unimaginable ways, from higher earning potential over benefits to flexibility to work remotely. The only reason this has become possible for me is because exactly three years ago, my boyfriend gifted me a laptop and suggested I should look into it. He didn’t care if I would go through with it, if I made it a career, if I even started school, but he didn’t want a lack of resources to stand in the way of me being able to even try.
This is not a personal sob story, I have always had an amazing life despite some obstacles, it’s a concrete example of how relatively minor investments into people and their education can result in massively improved outcomes over time. At this moment in history, we have an unbelievable number of people, especially young people, out of work with nowhere to go and nothing to do. One way to use this time, as I and the other students in my cohort have discovered, is to spend it working through a coding bootcamp remotely. Unfortunately, for students coming from high-poverty schools, for families with very little financial resources, this path is still barred. Some bootcamps do something to help, but we’re not doing nearly enough. While the lack of computer literacy due to poor STEM education is a problem, I personally believe this to be a minor problem. I had never worked with computers, I’d never converted a file, I’d never coded a thing in my life before getting into the prep work, and here I am, 3/4 mods down before beginning work on my full stack final project.
Bootcamps do what they do very well and give students the foundation they need to succeed with almost no previous experience required. There are amazing non-profits who get tech to people who can’t afford to buy computers themselves, bootcamps loan laptops to students who need them, and deferred tuition options can reduce the upfront costs. One obstacle remains: the deposit. Based on my research, all bootcamps require a deposit, ranging from $2000-$3500. That makes bootcamps absolutely cost-prohibitive for most low-income students, something that is often overlooked by higher earning individuals who design the payment plan. For many families even $300 can be an insurmountable obstacle, a minor emergency expense spelling major catastrophe for many American households. Combine that with this moment of crisis outlined in the beginning of this article and you will find that we’re in a moment where people are forced to be home and have time due to unemployment, but still can’t take advantage of these online programs because the cost of admission is far too high. Coding bootcamps are a great alternative or augmentation to college degrees, significantly increasing employment prospects and lifetime earning potential regardless of educational background. We can not sit idly by as technological progress leaves behind so many capable and hard working people over marginal sums of money. One concern might be in regard to students’ commitment to the program if there’s no upfront costs, since you would not want to give scholarships to students who won’t show up because they don’t have any skin in the game. It’s entirely reasonable to consider this potential problem, but it’s one that can easily be remedied by putting scholarship funds behind an additional step in vetting candidates, just like many other scholarships already do.
The biggest opportunity I see for bootcamps is to aggressively pursue corporate partners to fund scholarships that cover the full deposit, a 20% waiver isn’t sufficient to change the math for people who can barely pay their rent. Exploit corporations’ desire to appear (or maybe even BE) socially conscious and involved: a $100,000 check from Citi or Facebook or Google is absolutely nothing to them but everything to 40 students who are now able to change their lives in 4 months that would otherwise be nothing but wasted opportunity and despair over their bleak employment prospects even after the pandemic finally loosens its grip on American society. Those students in turn will then be able to teach, pass along their knowledge and create new opportunities, they become an example of what’s possible. Coding skills enable us to quite literally build some of the resources we’re currently lacking in high-poverty schools, to fill in as part-time educators in those communities, to create tech-focused after-school programs for kids who otherwise don’t have anywhere safe and productive to go. There are many great organizations² that do excellent work in an effort to solve broader issues of access to STEM education in schools, in the U.S. and around the globe, but we can not possibly do too much to level the playing field and give everyone the opportunity to participate in high-demand STEM careers if they’re willing and eager to put in the work.
Representation matters. Access matters. Community matters.
We have a chance here to take care of each other and push our country into a direction that’s better for all of us. A well-educated populace is a prosperous and peaceful populace, a country that’s able to compete globally, and one that will be held up as a template for others to follow once again.