Can the ‘Hunger Games’ of Coding Solve America’s Tech Worker Shortage?

Free French computer science school 42 is set to open in the summer in Silicon Valley, but critics worry women and people of color will be left out.
(Photo: Yuri Arcurs/Getty Images)
May 25, 2016· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

It seems like the perfect solution to a national crisis: At a time when the United States needs a million computer science graduates within the decade—and college costs are spiraling upward—a French telecom billionaire is about to open a state-of-the-art, tuition-free computer coding academy in the heart of Silicon Valley.

The innovative school, simply called 42, doesn’t care about secondary school grades or SAT scores and provides free dorms for up to 300 low-income students. Although it has a goal of educating 10,000 coders over the next five years, 42 won’t have faculty or a syllabus, but it will have classrooms stocked with the latest Apple computers.

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For entrance to what seems like a programmer’s utopia, there’s just one qualification: Students have to compete in what’s been called a Hunger Games–style do-or-die competition against other prospective students and take intelligence tests “to make sure the brain works,” as tech entrepreneur Nicolas Sadirac, the school’s director, explained to the Chicago Tribune.

That is where the problems begin, according to critics.

Although the school is tuition-free and has limited living space for students who can’t afford it, education analysts say 42’s application process puts young people from poor minority communities at a disadvantage; those students typically lack access to the kind of resources—and tech experience—that give their white competitors an advantage that’s hard to overcome.

Coupled with 42’s deliberate exclusion of subjects such as literature and history, experts say the school’s student body and its graduates are likely to perpetuate Silicon Valley’s nagging lack of diversity, just when the tech world needs more women and people of color.

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“We already don’t have equitable access” for poor and minority students, Julie Flapan, a professor of education at UCLA and executive director of the Alliance for California Computing Education for Students and Schools, told TakePart. Flapan’s organization is designed to ensure that all students—particularly girls, students of color, and those from poor socioeconomic backgrounds—have equal access to tech education and resources in schools.

In its admission competition, 42 “is already skimming from the top,” Flapan said. The kids most likely to win, she said, are the “lucky ones” who have experiences ranging from access to high-quality school computer science programs to parents who encouraged them at home, exposed them to technology through their careers, or sent them to tech summer camps.

“There’s a huge assumption that all kids would have had that experience,” she said. “We know that’s certainly not true.”

Not so, Brittany Bir, a graduate of the 42 campus in Paris and the chief of operations for the soon-to-open Fremont, California, campus, told TakePart. Bir, who grew up in Temecula, about an hour north of San Diego, said she wasn’t skilled in computer programming when she took the entrance test. A tech background isn’t a requirement for admission to the academy, and the Darwinian application process is less tech based than about determining whether the prospect “can catch on quickly to what the test is looking for,” Bir said.

Poor and minority kids, she said, “would have the same advantages anyone else would have. As long as they have access to a computer, including at a public library, to go on and take the test,” they can get in.

“All they really have to do is apply,” Bir said.

There’s little doubt that Xavier Niel, the entrepreneur behind the $100,000 campus opening in Fremont, had altruism in mind when he launched 42, which is named after a line in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy sci-fi trilogy.

In several interviews, Niel has said he created a prototype in France for reasons that will have American tech educators nodding. France, his home country, needs to close its tech gap with China, South Korea, and India, and his nation’s schools “don’t work.”

The U.S., as “the country of freedom, entrepreneurship and innovation,” was a logical area for expansion, according to the 42 website. At the same time, it says, a college education is “very expensive, blocking the way for many individuals to receive an education, find a well paid job and live the American dream.”

“Students are selected neither on the basis of financial ability nor educational degree, but solely on the basis of their talent and motivation. By employing this new educational approach, 42 applies neither the academic nor the financial criteria that prevent too many of today’s young people from achieving success,” reads the 42 website.

Yet, several studies have shown regular and Advanced Placement computer science courses—and teachers to lead them—are nearly nonexistent for African American and Latino students, particularly if they attend schools in struggling districts. Major Silicon Valley companies such as internet pioneer Google have acknowledged their ranks are overwhelmingly white and male and have pledged to find a solution.

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With its rigorous standards and self-directed learning—besides competing to get in, students, working together, must complete a project with escalating skill levels and benchmarks within five years or face dismissal—42 seems like a meritocracy. “We want to integrate,” said Bir, noting that the Paris campus has students from Africa and the Middle East, and the Fremont campus has diversity as one of its goals. Exclusion “goes against what we’re trying to do,” she said.

Flapan believes 42 doesn’t solve the problem of diversity in the computer science field, or of minority kids at risk of being left behind in a tech-focused economy.

Coding skills are important, but “we also need people who can work together and think critically,” she said. “That’s where diversity comes in. That’s where a well-rounded education comes in.”

“We want to expand our notion of what people who code look like and what they can do,” Flapan said. “We need to see that there are diverse role models. [The field] should include girls; it should include kids of color.”

Without it, “we will see unequal numbers of people of color” in tech academies like 42, she said, even if they’re free.