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Courtesy of Revature

Don’t want to borrow to get the education you need to land a high-paying job? A coding bootcamp is now paying students to learn computer programming, rather than charging tuition -- and guaranteeing them jobs when they graduate.

The Virginia-based company, called Revature, is setting up classrooms at college campuses around the country and recruiting college graduates for a free 40-hour-per-week, 12-week crash course in hot skills like Java and data management. The students receive minimum wage during the course. In return, graduates commit to working for Revature for two years, at an annual salary of anywhere from $50,000 to $65,000. (Revature sends its graduates out to work as contract software engineers at firms such as banks, health insurers, retailers and the like.)

Since November, Revature has set up paid immersion classes at two colleges: Arizona State University and Queens College in New York. Company officials say they plan to start offering similar classes at the University of Missouri in June, and George Mason University later in the year. They say they hope to add additional campuses later in the year.

Including another group of college grads that are taking classes at the company's headquarters in Reston, Va. -- and living in a company dorm -- Revature says it is currently paying at least 150 students to learn, and hopes to double that number within a year.

Revature is hardly the only coding bootcamp competing for would-be programmers. But many of its rivals charge high tuition -- some in excess of $15,000 for a three-month program -- and some yield mixed results for their graduates, leaving them stuck with big debt and weak job prospects. (Across the board, Americans now owe more than $1.3 trillion in student loans, an average of about $30,000 for those graduates who have borrowed.) By offering an alternative to the use of student loans to fund higher education, Revature's program has won praise from some students, college officials and educational experts.

Rikki Katz, who graduated with a bachelors in Computer Science from Queens College in 2015, says she was thrilled to get a spot in her alma mater’s first Revature class. She hadn’t been able to land a tech job on her own, in part because she had spent most of her first year after college teaching, rather than programming. “A lot of people think that finding jobs in programming is easy right now. But companies are looking for a lot of experience, which is hard to get,” she says.

The $11 hourly wage she received during the class helped her and her husband pay their rent, and meant she didn’t have to take on any additional debt for the skills tuneup. Katz was placed at a programming job at a finance company after she graduated from Revature in March.

“Nobody wants more debt,” Katz says.

The program faces several risks, however. The company may find it difficult to keep its graduates employed for two years, and thus not be able to recoup its investment in the students, for example. And the students Revature wants to recruit may eventually find it more profitable to fund their own education and then take whatever job they want; fully trained starting software engineers often command salaries in excess of $70,000 a year.

Despite the risks, Revature is one of a growing number of coding boot camps and colleges offering free (or very low) tuition to students willing to share a percentage of their earnings after graduation.

The number of other companies offering apprenticeships -- where new workers learn while they earn a reduced salary -- has also risen sharply, says Robert Lerman, an American University economist who studies apprenticeships. The U.S. Department of Labor says there were 505,000 Americans in formal apprenticeships in the fall of 2016, up from 375,000 in the fall of 2013.

Many other countries, such as Germany and Australia, have large apprenticeship programs, notes Lerner. And “apprenticeships are in the air” here in the U.S., he adds, partially as a result of the growing backlash against big student debt.

Joe Vacca, chief marketing officer for Revature, says that so far there’s no sign the company will have any trouble finding new students willing to make the two-year commitment -- nor keeping its graduates employed. “Because of the pressure on immigration, more companies are looking at how to hire U.S. citizens,” he said.

“Revature is a great model” for helping Americans get in-demand skills, says Rick O’Donnell, CEO of Skills Fund, an Austin-based lender to students at other coding boot camps. Revature only profits if its students are wanted by other employers, so it is highly motivated to make sure students get the best training possible, he says. And it at least gives students who want training without debt an option.

“Some students are very debt-averse," he adds. "The risk of knowing they will have a job might be worth making a little less the first few years,” he added.