What’s the Value of a Non-Traditional Education?

Your applicant boasts a stint in app development bootcamp and a nano degree from Udacity in full stack development. What does that even mean? Wait, no undergrad degree? Non-traditional education has always been a factor but with the rise of bootcamps in the tech sector, non-traditional credentials are showing up more and more on the resumes of top candidates.


What’s the Value of a Non-Traditional Education?


But how can recruiters — and candidates looking to gain new skills — assess the value of these credentials?


Tech growth has outpaced traditional university and college’s ability to graduate coders, and bootcamps have stepped in to close the gap. Bootcamps, operating outside of educational institutions and running lean, can afford to specialize. There are bootcamps for women, bootcamps for new immigrants, bootcamps for people of colour, and bootcamps for moms. There are even business bootcamps, inspired by their coder cousins, designed to get new entrepreneurs up to speed quickly. The high cost of tuition at traditional institutions and the length of programs of study — even post-graduate certificates can take years — make bootcamps an appealing option for those returning to the workforce and those looking to change streams mid-career. Add to that, bootcamps’ record on graduating and effectively placing more women, more LGBTQ, and more candidates of colour in jobs, and the value of a stint in bootcamp is clear.

But how can you assess the value of a particular bootcamp? Because most bootcamps are private, for-profit programs with a short history, the best way to assess them is through results and student reviews. Some bootcamps are associated with larger more traditional educational institutions or backed by tech giants, but this may not be an indicator of the quality of instruction. How many students complete the program? How many are working within six months of graduating? And how many are still working six months after that? How have students, both graduates and dropouts, rated the program? If you can’t find a bootcamps grad rate and student reviews with a quick Google search, that’s a red flag.

Certificates and Academies

Alongside bootcamps we’re seeing an expansion in non-traditional educational opportunities at big institutions and a growth in private, for-profit colleges dealing in certificates and “nanodegrees.” Take on crippling student debt for an MA or spend a year on a post-grad certificate for a fraction of the cost? Certificates at both private and public colleges are rapidly increasing their enrolments, thanks to the simultaneous desire of candidates to increase their credentials — undergrad degrees are less competitive with the steady increase of graduates — and to do so without doubling their debt loads. Side by side with shady for-profit colleges are less shady, seemingly credible academies offering low-cost, high-speed, intensive skills training.

But how can you tell the difference?

As with bootcamps, results and reputation are key. Udacity, which offers “nanodegrees” at the fraction of the cost of a traditional degree can boast connections to tech giants and good press. The end results of their program — employment of graduates — is so far unclear. But the weight of those connections is probably heavy enough to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Experience and Self-Directed Study

I have a friend with all the experience in the world but no degree. She’s a great candidate in many ways but she worries about that missing credential — won’t most recruiters and hiring managers skip her over? Some will, of course, because traditional degrees are clear and easy ways to evaluate candidates. For the most part we know what a candidate might have studied. We know the reputation of the school, and perhaps even the particular program. Some recruiters even have relationships with a wide network of schools, and scout candidates before they’ve graduated. But when it comes down to who’s more qualified, degreed students don’t always have a clear advantage. Freshly graduated students have that key credential but they lack experience — and connections. For both degreed and non-degreed candidates, recommendations and experience are overwhelmingly the deciding factors for recruiters.

Recruiters in the tech industry have the advantage of an industry culture that assumes the interview process will involve tests and trial runs. It’s not enough to read a resume and conduct a few interviews — before bringing a new coder into a fast-paced, demanding environment, hiring managers need to know candidates have all the skills they claim to have, and that they will be a good fit for the team. Several days long interviews are common in tech, with candidates performing tasks that would be part of their potential job, and meeting the team. There’s no doubt, after these trials, about the quality of a candidate’s skills and their truth of their resume.

This kind of exhaustive trial run is less common outside of tech, and completely impractical for some industries. In these cases, it’s up to recruiters and hiring managers to evaluate a candidate’s experience, thoroughly check references, and ask the kinds of leading questions that will test candidates real knowledge. “Walk me through how you would solve this problem,” is one of my favourites. I also push for stories of their past experiences, problems they’ve solved and mistakes they’ve turned around to successes. In truth, it’s no different from interviewing degreed candidates — do they seem like the real deal? Then they probably are.

The problem for non-degreed candidates is convincing recruiters to ignore that missing credential; how heavily recruiters and hiring managers will weigh it is different from industry to industry. But as with degreed candidates, experience and connections matter. Baby engineers can prove themselves on Github. Baby event planners and PR folks can prove themselves by working with local small businesses. Successes matter, great projects matter, even if they’re small. As a former recruiter myself, I can say with confidence that real work experience and completed projects are far more interesting than your degree. It’s just a matter of building experience that matters: relevant, intensive, and rounded. If you want to impress me, be impressive.


Non-traditional education and experience are increasingly important. Some even claim that traditional degrees will be obsolete in a few decades. I think this is overstating things, because even as non-traditional educational solutions are on the rise, the big educational institutions are responding with new and different options for students. But in the meantime, the relevance of non-traditional education is only growing, even outside of the tech industry. It’s essential that both recruiters and candidates understand these options — and can see through the PR to their real value.


Photo credit.


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Megan Purdy

Former recruiter, HR pro and Workology editor. Comics, cheese and political economy.


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