Although coding is widely accepted as an entry-level skill, admission to some colleges and universities is not based solely on an applicant's aptitude for digital coding. The admissions board can spot potential at a glance, even if a candidate isn't coding. The admission board could use a computer.

A startup called Accolade is launching a program at four-year schools that offers the coding skills needed to become a professional worker after high school—without the cost of tuition. New York University's New York School of Professional Studies and Carnegie Mellon University's Simon Business School are two universities already testing the service.

Accolade costs a nickel, plus an enrollment fee of $50. The school offers credit for taking short coding classes for college credit, but then its software adds a co-op component, as well as another coding step. College students can get about 30 hours of credit credit for taking two or three courses on how to code. The courses are free, in part because they incorporate new technology, so they aren't tech-dependent, said Adam Lefer, the founder and chief executive of Accolade.

The startup is launching in New York and Miami now. Lefer expects to reach 100 to 200 schools, likely in the next couple of years.

"It's not aimed at working at Amazon," Lefer said. Accolade hopes to be the 21st-century version of HP Semester, a student program launched at Columbia University in 2013 that gave students computer science classes but needed them to work in one of the school's corporate partnerships, such as Barnes & Noble, Visa or VeriSign.

The goal of Accolade is to encourage students to consider becoming skilled workers as they leave high school, rather than just go to college and major in a niche subject like mathematics. Lefer said that he wants to replace the shame of coding in high school with understanding and excitement over the power of coding.

"It's not that we're reinventing learning. It's almost like reinventing public education," he said.

The company offers the teaching method, called Lean Scrum, developed by Accolade's faculty at Carnegie Mellon. It consists of a series of fast-paced, two-hour workshops that introduce students to various technological advances, from cloud computing to near-field communication. The program helps students try out different ideas and get accustomed to a developing mind-set and learning methodology that Lefer thinks will enable engineers to get jobs earlier than they ever have before.

It's not a straight drop-in course, though.

Each of the course materials comes in a book or at home, which the students open on a mobile device every day.

Students work in teams. The assignments for the course come at the beginning and end of each class, giving students a break between each project to review the previous one.

Accolade shares the credit for the co-op to the company, which then values the credits worth more than it would by the accolade client.

The end product is a job, whether it's a programming job for the government, company or charity, said Doug Mielke, NYU's dean of applied science and engineering. Students who take a coding class will likely get hired before they graduate, he said.

Students would work in teams of two and three people, Mielke said. The team spends most of the project working on developing different ways of operating mobile devices. Although it's the startup's software that does the heavy lifting, the students become accustomed to using programs that are just basic tools, and not the Google-esque apps, he said.

"A lot of this stuff is really just comprehension," he said. "It takes a while for folks to catch up."

The idea to combine soft skills with technical skills originated with Accolade's faculty, and has been expanded over the last year at New York University's New York School of Professional Studies, Lefer said. The school will recruit graduate engineering and computer science students, as well as students interested in science, technology, engineering and math fields.