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Shopify is sponsoring free computer-science educations—at $110K a pop

Students get no-cost university degrees—and paying jobs at a hot company. But is it smart for schools to place such a big bet on one corporate partner?

Shopify is sponsoring free computer-science educations—at $110K a pop
[Photo: courtesy of Shopify]

Laura Aubin always struggled in high school. And as she neared graduation, she feared the next four years would be more of the same.

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“I wanted to focus on computer science, and I was also really interested in biology and art, but I kind of let the rest of it slip,” says the 22-year-old. “I had a hard time thinking what it would be like going to university.”

Aubin was intrigued, however, by a new degree program offered by Shopify, one of Canada’s largest tech companies, in partnership with Ottawa-based Carleton University. She says it wasn’t unusual to see staffers from the company around the halls of her high school providing computer science lessons and mentorship to students. It was one of those mentors that introduced Aubin to a new degree that the company was offering in partnerships with Ottawa-based Carleton University.

Launched in 2016, Dev Degree offers students a four-year accredited computer science degree along with 4,500 hours of hands-on experience. Students split their time between three university courses and roughly 25 hours a week at Shopify, which recently leapfrogged eBay to become the world’s second largest e-commerce platform, behind Amazon. Not only is tuition free, but students are also compensated for their time at Shopify, which the company says is equivalent to $160,000 CAD (or roughly $110,000 USD) worth of salary, tuition, and vacation over 4 years.

Students are not guaranteed a job at Shopify following graduation, nor are they required to accept any roles the company offers to them. The company says that it cannot comment on how many roles will be provided to its first cohort, which is scheduled to graduate later this year. (At the moment, the COVID-19 crisis has led to students both taking classes and working for Shopify from home.)

It wasn’t the financial arrangement or even the prospect of full-time employment after graduation that most attracted Aubin to the program. “This program offered me the opportunity to work at my own pace . . . . It just aligned with the things I felt I was missing at school,” she says. “It really does allow you to focus on actually learning instead of just trying to look like you know everything.”

Since its launch, Dev Degree has accepted 60 students into the program and added a second institution, Toronto-based York University, with hopes of further expansion in the future.

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Dev Degree students including Laura Aubin (center). [Photo: courtesy of Shopify]
While Shopify’s program is somewhat novel, it’s representative of a wider trend in higher education. The relationship between higher learning and private industry continues to strengthen as institutions struggle to keep up with the rapidly changing needs of employers, and employers struggle to find talent that suits those needs. The skyrocketing cost of tuition also has many students and parents taking a hard look at the cost-benefit of higher learning, and considering alternatives.

According to a recent study, 74% of K-12 parents said they would prefer their child found work directly out of high school with an employer that offered a college degree while on the job. Other studies also suggest that American employers have a strong preference for graduates with hands-on experience.

On the surface, the increasingly cozy relationship between private industry and higher learning provides benefits to all three stakeholders. Students are able to gain real-world experience before graduation and can even earn an income during their studies; universities can stay up to date with employer needs while offering the hands-on learning experience parents and employers are demanding; and employers get to have a say in how their future employees are educated, along with a steady pipeline of qualified talent. That’s why analysts believe as many as one-third of all students will work directly out of high school while earning a relevant degree in the next decade.

At the same time, however, some warn that this new arrangement presents significant conflicts of interest, putting the needs of a sponsoring company ahead of the needs of students and higher learning institutions.

How the Dev Degree was born

The Dev Degree is the brainchild of Shopify’s chief technology officer, Jean-Michel Lemieux, who adapted the idea from a program he initiated with his former employer in Australia.

I’ve hired thousands of graduate developers, and each time I’ve had to reteach them professional software development.”

Shopify CTO Jean-Michel Lemieux
“I’ve hired thousands of graduate developers, and each time I’ve had to reteach them professional software development,” he says. “Our hypothesis was that if we could get students learning the theory and practice in real time, we wouldn’t have to retrain them, and students would be able to contribute to companies a lot faster. This is how Dev Degree was born.”

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Though Australian institutions were interested, according to Lemieux, they were unable to implement the program within their academic frameworks. Instead Lemieux brought the idea to his next employer, Shopify, and discovered that institutions in Canada were equally as enthusiastic, and better able to implement the idea.

“Because there’s up to eight courses’ worth of academic credit that’s associated with the program, it had to go through their board of approval,” says Dev Degree’s program lead, Alison Evans Adnani. “With both our university partners we managed to do that in about a year, which is amazing for university program approvals.”

While the work placement is specific to Shopify, however, the coursework is not.

Shopify CTO and Dev Degree creator Jean-Michel Lemieux (right) checks in with students. [Photo: courtesy of Shopify]
“All of the in-class course work is non-Shopify focused, and during all four of their placements [students] are exposed to various technology areas that are relevant across other tech companies,” says Adnani. “By covering tuition, we remove the need for students to pursue loan arrangements, and we reinforce that there is no obligation to stay with Shopify; our primary focus is on ensuring that the program is in the best interest of the students.”

In exchange Adnani says the company enjoys access to a diverse workforce that has already been exposed to a range of departments, teams, and processes within the company. Shopify’s headcount has been skyrocketing in recent years, from 131 employees in 2012 to roughly 1,000 employees in 2015 to more than 5,000 today. According to Adnani, the company has long prioritized recruiting and nurturing local Canadian talent. Filling the talent pipeline in a relatively sparsely populated country requires innovative education and training solutions, she adds.

The case for sponsorship

Adnani says the program is appealing to students because it gives them the opportunity to apply what they’re learning in the classroom in near real time, and to explore an array of positions to find the one that suits them best.

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After eight months working with Shopify’s technical educators to get a feel for the company’s structure and tech stack, students take their first of four job placements. “It’s usually a front end or back end placement, and that gives them a chance to really get to know their team, to get settled, and to start having an impact on the team,” she says. “After that they take three more placements, each in a different technology area.”

While students are not required to work at Shopify following graduation, Adnani believes the real-world skills they gain during the program makes them more competitive job candidates wherever they apply. “Even if they don’t stay with Shopify, they’ve had that teamwork experience that will make them valuable to any employer,” she says.

Aubin, who will be part of Dev Degree’s first graduating class later this year, says that she was very excited to receive an offer from Shopify to continue working as a user experience developer after she completes her degree. Even without the offer, however, she believes the program has provided a range of benefits.

“It’s a really good feedback loop,” she says. “I find that if I don’t apply what I’ve learned, I forget about it immediately after the exam, but being able to actually use it in an industry where it’s actually relevant really helps.”

Furthermore, though she says the financial arrangement wasn’t a major factor in her initial decision, Aubin says it’s allowed her to focus her energy in a way she wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.

“All my friends right now have part-time jobs, and I see how hard they’re working, and at times it feels a little unfair that not everyone has this opportunity,” she says. “It gives you a lot more time and focus to put towards what you’re studying, instead of worrying about all that other stuff.”

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“Our 2020 graduating students have been at the company for longer than 85% of the company,” adds Lemieux. “They’ve worked on nearly every part of our product and get industry experience while they study.”

Conflict of interest?

Shopify says that it isn’t dictating what’s taught in the classroom. However, some still worry that an educational program built around the needs of a specific employer might put those who aren’t invited to work for that company after graduation—or ultimately choose not to—at a disadvantage.

“It sounds too confining to me, too restrictive,” says Kenneth Lutchen, dean of the College of Engineering at Boston University. “Not only would I be concerned—we wouldn’t allow it at the undergraduate level at all, because you’re doing the student a disservice.”

We know we’re preparing students for a variety of corporate pathways, not just one.”

Boston University dean Kenneth Lutchen
Lutchen believes such arrangements only work when there are multiple employers involved. He helped pioneer a partnership between his college and a council of roughly a dozen local technology companies in the Boston area, providing opportunities similar to those of Shopify’s Dev Degree without betting everything on a single employer.

“The mission of the institution is not to create employees for a specific company with a narrow set of skills that only that company can use; that would violate the mission of the undergraduate experience,” he says. “In fact, about 40% of engineers end up not working in engineering 10, 15 years after they graduate, so that would be a big concern.”

While a tuition-free education along with a part-time salary sounds like a sweet deal for students, Lutchen believes it’s the schools that stand to gain the most, financially speaking. He explains that a significant proportion of students require financial aid, with each one reducing the institution’s overall revenue. When a private company is paying the tab, however, the university is able to collect on the full cost.

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“The university has an economic incentive to encourage students to join that program, which absolves the institution from having to provide financial aid,” he argues.

Not only does the financial arrangement threaten the objectivity of the institution, Lutchen believes it also compromises the students’ ability to make decisions about their own educational pathway.

Dev Degree program lead Alison Evans Adnani [Photo: courtesy of Shopify]
“The student is made to feel committed to the program rather than have an open mind, because the tuition dollars will stop if they want to switch majors,” he says. “That’s why we would not do that. We would say ‘pay us a certain amount to be on the steering committee, be a member of a consortium of companies.’ And then we know we’re preparing students for a variety of corporate pathways, not just one.”

In response to the charge that the program could limit students’ career prospects, Adnani says the actual coursework is not specific to Shopify, and that the classroom experience is in line with other computer science degrees.

Sponsored education isn’t new

The concept of a private company funding their own employees’ higher learning has been around for decades.

In 1923, Michigan’s Flint Institute of Technology began offering cooperative education in partnership with local automakers. Three years later General Motors took over financial support and renamed it The General Motors Institute of Technology. The institution was accredited by the Higher Learning Commission in 1962. Then in 1982, as the automaker began reducing its presence in Michigan, the school changed its name again, and it’s known today as Kettering University.

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“They literally trained people while having them work part-time in the factories and production facilities at GM while they were studying, getting engineering degrees,” explains Richard Vedder, a professor emeritus of economics at Ohio University and senior fellow at the Independent Institute. “The concept never exploded, and then of course as the auto industry underwent transformation and GM went bankrupt they got out of that, but the remnants of it still exist.”

People want to marry their academic learning and receive a credential with real-world experience.”

Independent Institute senior fellow Richard Vedder
The concept of integrating learning and work, however, has come roaring back in recent years thanks to a number of concurrent trends. As the cost of higher education skyrockets, saddling the average American undergraduate with $29,000 in debt, many are questioning its value. According to a study by the New York Federal Reserve, 41% of recent college graduates and 34% of all college graduates have jobs that don’t require a college degree.

As a result, college enrollment has been slipping by a little over 1% each year, with unduplicated enrollments down about 2 million since its peak in 2011. According to Vedder, however, enrollment at institutions that offer work-integrated learning opportunities is generally staying flat or increasing.

“People want to marry their academic learning and receive a credential with real-world experience,” he says. “I think it’s a model that has some real promise.”

The concerns brought forward by Lutchen of BU, according to Vedder, don’t really outweigh the positives. In his opinion administrators are likely more concerned about giving up control of their curriculum than the quality of the curriculum itself. “Faculty tend to be traditionalists, and they tend to be jealous of people who they would view are trying to usurp their powers,” he says. “You will get a lot of that in American universities.”

Vedder also disagrees with the notion that high school students are too young to dedicate their undergraduate studies to a single organization, as they’re regularly asked to make equally important decisions about their futures.

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“They’re choosing everything in life; they’re choosing a major field of study, they’re choosing where to go, they’re choosing whether to move away from home,” he says. “Yes you’re making a long-term commitment, but they’re already doing that to a considerable extent, it just makes it a little bit bigger of a commitment.”

The new normal

Whether you’re concerned about the encroachment of private interests and funding into higher learning or encouraged by the prospect of more adaptive programs and more career ready graduates, many believe it will soon become the new normal.

“I would think this idea could very well grow, it can become bigger,” says Vedder. “[Students and parents are] opening up to [alternative arrangements] because they see so many people going through traditional schooling that don’t end up with a happy ending; they end up in debt or they end up not graduating.”

As the first cohort prepares to graduate later this year Lemieux believes his experiment has proven successful, and hopes to see the Dev Degree model expand in future years. Perhaps one day it could even include input and financial support from other employers and private companies as well.

“Our goal has always been to share our learnings and either spin up Dev Degree as a nationwide program or let other companies and universities copy and evolve it,” he says. “One challenge we have today is standardizing the relationship between the program and the universities, so before we can scale globally we want to define that relationship more formally and make it easier to support students who are flowing between universities and companies over their four-year program.”

One way or another, Boston University’s Lutchen believes that the future of education includes closer ties between industry and institution. “You’re going to see more and more companies wanting to work with universities to prepare students for the more rapidly changing needs of the workforce in ways the universities might not be able to do otherwise,” he says. “There’s a huge number of benefits to the economy in general, to society, to the companies, and the value proposition of a college education. There’s a lot of wins.”

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Lutchen, however, maintains that the benefits of this arrangement will be lost if a single company is able to play an outsized role in shaping the curriculum. He believes that in order to protect the future of education such programs should rely on a consortium of employer stakeholders, spread across a wider array of institutions. Anything less broad “is antithetical to the mission of undergraduate education,” he says.

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About the author

Jared Lindzon is a freelance journalist and public speaker born, raised and based in Toronto, Canada. Lindzon's writing focuses on the future of work and talent as it relates to technological innovation, as well as entrepreneurship, technology, politics, sports and music.

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