Flatiron: New Life for the Middle Class?

The Flatiron School sits on 20,000 square feet of prime real estate on Broadway in lower Manhattan. With airy, open rooms full of modern computing equipment, spacious tables, and snappily-dressed teachers, the school exudes the kind of educational wealth one would expect from a Columbia or an NYU. Except this school was founded in 2012, and with no centuries-old endowment or generations of loving alumni for support, it has relied on a mixture of grants and tuition payments to cover its highly sought-after classes. Flatiron is a school for aspiring computer programmers, and when participants lucky enough to make the 6 percent acceptance rate of its most recent class “graduated,” 99% took full-time jobs. The average pay: north of $70,000. At a time when cities across the United States still stand like so many crumbling monuments to the middle-class jobs of mid-century American industry, the technology industry is quietly but clearly filling the gap for well-paying jobs that do not require an expensive degree.    

Flatiron is just one of many coding academies that dot the nation’s most innovative and tech-friendly cities, but it in many ways espouses the blue-collar ethos of the manufacturing jobs it is almost surely now replacing. Perhaps most indicative of this trend is Flatiron’s view of itself as directly servicing the needs of industry. Less about learning for its own sake, Flatiron and its competitors act like apprenticeship programs for tech giants such as Facebook, Alphabet’s Google, and the trendy Square. Like the human resources manual of a Kodak or U.S. Steel manager in years past, Flatiron’s training is not the subject of endless review or debate. It is simply hitched to whatever pushes production efficiency in the “real world.” It is almost as if Flatiron itself were part of the companies that hire its graduates. If Facebook’s engineers, for example, decide to switch their entire programming platform from, say, Java to HTML overnight, Flatiron is agile enough to change its curriculum right with them, even in the middle of a class. It did just that when Apple made changes to its online products in 2014.  

Straightforward access is an essential part of middle-class jobs, and Flatiron has made accessibility to industry opportunities the center of its mission. In doing so, it has revealed the potential for the tech industry to confer benefits on society far beyond job opportunities themselves. Financial security means so much more than good pay, safe work conditions, and wide-ranging benefits to a millennial population fraught with debt and job insecurity. It means the kind of job and identity stability that improves everything around it, from hobbies to charitable giving to family ties. Historically, this kind of stability has been a good thing. Given similar opportunities upon returning from war to the maturing industrial economy, many in the great generation soon found themselves wealthier than their predecessors. With its calls to “make yourself useful,” Flatiron’s mission of gainful employment is the 2020 version of the white picket fence 1950s: all of the benefits of economic opportunity, but, importantly, benefits attuned to the social expectations of the times, not stuck in the past.  Coders work with computers, not assembly lines, and they exert more intellectual than physical energy, but in the end, they strive towards the kind of satisfying, well-paying employment that can boost the middle class and help ease income inequality across America’s cities.    

For all the positivity surrounding the generous “Flatiron” starting salary, the low time commitment of the training program, and the close relationship between Flatiron and industry giants, the coding education model is a limited improvement on the economy, not a general solution for its problems. It won’t bring back the ‘50s or ‘60s, and some Trump supporters might desire. It probably won’t replace the role of the university in training future coders. And most importantly, it may not necessarily represent a panacea for people who want to skip an expensive degree. The average age of a Flatiron student is 31.  Most have bachelor’s degrees and prior work experience to boot. If markets act as we would expect them to, drawing people away from four-year degrees with the promise of well-paying jobs soon after high school, the percentage of students at schools like Flatiron with bachelor’s degrees may eventually decrease. But industry employers warn of the limitations of narrow training. To them, the broad skills represented bachelor’s degree are still necessary for many high-level jobs, especially in management. But all things considered, the un-expensively taught coders will benefit, and they can always ‘go back’ for their bachelor’s. They can always “go back” for their bachelors.