Ashu Desai built his first iPhone app when he was 16; a 99¢ game called Helicopter. It was a modest hit, with 50,000 downloads. A few years later, sitting in massive lecture classes as a freshman at the University of California at Los Angeles, Desai found himself bored stiff.
"I was pretty disappointed in what I was learning," Desai says. He wanted to learn how to build more products, not regurgitate textbook chapters, and he began to doubt that the six-figure cost of a four-year degree was worth it.
Desai dropped out after his first year. Now he's offering other young upstarts the opportunity to do the same: The San Francisco company he founded in 2012, Make School, is rolling out a two-year certificate program this fall that aims to help techies get a job in Silicon Valley without a college degree.
More than 350 people have applied to join the inaugural class of 50 students. They'll learn how to develop iOS apps using such programming languages as Objective-C and Swift, build websites using Ruby on Rails, and network, with the goal of becoming startup founders or joining companies.
Desai is so confident the model will work that he doesn't plan to charge students tuition up front. Instead, they'll pay their way by giving back what they earn from the summer internships they'll take on halfway through the program and 25 percent of their first-year salaries.
"In the technology industry, companies care a lot more about what you build than where you went to school," Desai says. "We're trying to create an institution that reflects our values in education and what we think will help make people successful in tech."
There's a Cinderella-story aspect to Make School's promise, one that has lured hopeful young people since demand for software engineering jobs began to boom. Since 2012, underemployed and uninspired career-changers have flocked to coding bootcamps from Silicon Valley to the Silicon Prairie (Omaha, for the unacquainted). For around $10,000, the schools promise to transform former humanities majors and recovering bankers into entry-level Web developers—12 weeks to a six-figure salary. Yet they have experienced growing pains, too, facing accusations of shoddy teaching even as they surge in popularity. And forgoing a bachelor's degree has risks.
"It’s always a gamble skipping college," says Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University's Center on Education & the Workforce. "Suppose employers start saying, 'these folks are great coders, but they need a little bit more conceptual understanding, or more academic preparation.' Not every acorn becomes an oak."
Make School has a way to sidestep some of those problems, Desai says. Unlike existing coding bootcamps that hope to turn career-changers into novice developers, Make School is intended to fast-track the careers of "kids who started hacking at age 9, computer science majors who are considering dropping out of college, and students who've already shipped 10 to 20 apps to the App Store."
The program has been backed by Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian, venture capitalist Tim Draper, Andreessen Horowitz, and Y Combinator. Even Carnevale, citing the demand for highly skilled workers, sees the upside of the Make School model.
"We're reaching the point where a coding certificate is now more valuable than a college degree," Carnevale says. "They're not more valuable than an engineering degree. But they're worth more than another bachelor's."
Perhaps the toughest sell will be mom and dad. Josh Archer, a sophomore majoring in cognitive science at UCLA, is dropping out to attend Make School in the fall. His parents, both doctors, weren't thrilled at the idea.
"They both really encouraged me to go to college, finish, and maybe get a Ph.D.," says Archer, who hopes to work in iOS development after finishing the program. "But once they understood how I could get an education in two years, rather than four, they decided that might be OK."
Even successful entrepreneurs aren't immune to parental criticism for taking an unconventional career path. "My mom occasionally calls and asks me when I'm going back to college," Desai says.