SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) – Coding schools are popping up across the country, touting a fast lane to a six-figure software engineer job. But dozens of students at a Bay Area school say they got a bad deal.

Their complaints prompted the state last week to file a lawsuit against Holberton School, accusing it of obtaining authorization to operate by fraud.

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At the heart of San Francisco’s high-tech South of Market hub, Holberton School has the look and feel of a startup and a terrain that is hard to resist: learn to code and jumpstart your career, all for nothing.

“They had business partners with, you know, the big four. It seemed like a no-brainer, ”said former student Essence Boayue.

Boayue, along with alumni Dimitrious Phillious and Josh Gonzalez said that the fact that they could study first and pay later was the main reason they chose Holberton over other schools.

“I couldn’t afford to pay for training camp so that was definitely the biggest selling point,” Phillious said.

Under a deferred tuition fee agreement, also known as a revenue sharing agreement, they pledged to repay a maximum of $ 85,000 by contributing 17% of their future income for three and a half years, provided they earn at least $ 40,000. As long as they earn less than that, the loan is deferred. “I could pay once I landed a tech job, or what I assumed would be a tech job,” Gonzalez said.

At the time, the school offered nine months of basic education, followed by a six-month internship and nine months of specialization. He made it clear that he had no teachers and no formal classes. But these students say they didn’t realize how disappointing that would be.

“We were told this is a world class program,” said Boayue. “Well come find out that a big part of the curriculum consists of Google links. If I pay $ 85,000 for content, I expect it to be written by the person I’m paying, not the free internet. “

They say an impressive list of school mentors never materialized.

“When I hear the word mentor, I think someone who comes in and develops a personal relationship with a student… and we didn’t get that,” Boayue said. “We taught ourselves and each other, it was like Lord of the Flies,” Phillious said.

After the basic education, the students said there was very little help finding an internship or a job. “Most of us were looking between six months and a year,” Phillious said. “A lot of people haven’t found a job.”

As for the specialized training, they said they did not know of any students who could have taken it. Instead, they claim that the school offered a so-called “career path” that completely ignored this requirement. “I felt cheated. I felt seriously cheated, ”Gonzalez said.

After dozens of students filed complaints, the state issued an emergency decision ordering the school to cease enrolling new students, due to immediate danger to health, safety and the welfare of the public.

This was followed by an accusation that Holberton engaged in prohibited business practices to award students with credits for unfinished education. The school was also accused of obtaining permission to operate by fraud for agreeing not to offer a revenue sharing deal and then offering it anyway.

Holberton has appealed the emergency decision and is now allowed to continue enrolling new students in a modified, discounted program that no longer includes the career path. The school declined our interview request citing the state’s pending complaint. Instead, he referred us to one of his satisfied students.

“It’s a young school. It’s also an international start-up, so obviously it’s going to be struggling to grow, but I think it’s moving forward in an incredible way, ”said student Arthur Damm. He says not having a teacher has worked very well for him. “I actually prefer to have the freedom to Google whatever I want,” Damm said.

He showed us how the project-based program at Holberton works: an automated checker tells students when they code incorrectly, so they can try again.

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“Automated testing is actually an integral part of the industry,” Damm said. “So a software school where learning is based on automated testing, that’s really great for me.”

Damm says that when he started at Holberton last year, students were allowed to skip specialist training. “When you complete a six-month internship, it actually counts as the end of a specialization,” Damm said. But not anymore, since the state took hold.

“It was always a two-year program. Some students wanted a shorter option, they were given it. And now it’s called fraud, ”Damm said.

Like the students who are now complaining, Damm was also drawn to the school by the revenue sharing model. “For me, it’s much better than a loan because the interest never changes,” Damm said.

But the University of California, education professor at Berkeley, Tolani Britton, disagrees. “Some of the critics have really called this program contract bondage,” said Britton, adding that revenue sharing agreements are a relatively new way to fund higher education, so no specific figures are available on their results.

The schools that offer them claim that they are not loans, which exempts them from federal lending truth laws.

“There are unknowns, there is a lack of regulation. There is a lack of transparency, ”said Tolani. “A lot of revenue sharing deals say that if you make less than $ 40,000, you don’t pay. However, if you have created three jobs and earn $ 40,000, then in theory, the revenue sharing agreement will go into effect. “

She says that four-year institutions that offer the ISA cap them on average at 3%. “So we compare something like that to 17%, and 17% is actually really high,” Prof Tolani said.

For now, Phillious and Gonzalez are delaying paying back Holberton until the state makes a final decision. Boayue got a coding job and paid back $ 10,000, which she now wants back.

Ironically, his face and Gonzalez’s are still displayed all over the internet, promoting the Holberton School. “I really feel guilty that I contributed to the publicity that led a ton of other people to find themselves in this situation,” Boayue said.

We asked the students what they would say if they had Holberton in front of them.

“I would say you keep your promise,” Gonzalez said. “You want to make technology accessible to people, that’s not the way you should be doing it.”

“I just want people to stop getting ripped off,” Phillious said.

Holberton now requires students to take a quiz that explains what a revenue sharing agreement is before enrolling, so that they are fully informed. The school sent us the following statement:

“Holberton was created with the belief that a world-class education should be available to everyone, regardless of their educational background, gender, race or ability to pay. Forty-four million Americans have $ 1.6 trillion in student debt; Californians alone owe $ 134.3 billion. Holberton was developed as a different type of school that promotes (rather than hinders) social mobility.

At Holberton, students have the choice of paying tuition fees in advance or defer their tuition fees until they find employment. If they choose the tuition deferral option, they repay a percentage of their income for 3.5 years provided they earn at least $ 40,000 in annual gross income with a maximum repayment cap of 85,000. $. If students don’t get a job paying at least $ 40,000 a year during that 3.5-year period, they won’t pay back anything to the school – literally $ 0. To be held to owe a total sum of $ 85,000, the student will have to earn $ 142,857 on average per year during the entire three-and-a-half-year repayment period; if they earn less, Holberton earns less. In other words, the amount students pay to school is directly related to the student’s income, so our success is tied to their success. Our students come from all walks of life. Some were grocery and dishwasher clerks who probably earned minimum wage before they joined school. On average, our San Francisco graduates earn six-figure salaries from some of the top employers in the tech industry like Apple, Tesla, and Pinterest.

The California Bureau for Private Post-Secondary Education (BPPE) recently requested that we cease managing one of our program modules, Career Track, which we had created to allow students to graduate while working on the a lot given the high cost of living – especially in San Francisco – and given that many of our students come from disadvantaged, low-income backgrounds. We plan to speak to the California Attorney General’s office to discuss the concerns that led to the BPPE decision. In the meantime, we have ceased operations of this program module.

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We have always strived to act in the best interests of our students and would be happy to answer questions from KPIX, but out of respect for the ongoing legal process, we are unable to comment further at this time. We look forward to the opportunity to further explain our innovative program once the work is completed. This ordeal was very hard for our students. More than anything, we want to get back to our core mission of providing them with world-class technical training, no matter where they are from, what color their skin is or whether they are able to pay.



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