Ep.22 | Closing the Racial Gap in Tech with Alternative Education – with Reuben Ogbonna

Ep.22 | Closing the Racial Gap in Tech with Alternative Education– with Reuben Ogbonna, Co-founder & Executive Director, The Marcy Lab School 


Guest: Reuben Ogbonna, Co-founder & Executive Director, The Marcy Lab School 

Todd Zipper, EVP and GM of Wiley University Services and Talent Development, welcomes Reuben Ogbonna, Co-Founder and Executive Director of The Marcy Lab School. Todd and Reuben discuss alternative education and how it can help underrepresented high school students find tech opportunities without financial burden. Listen to their conversation on your favorite podcast platform.

Topics Discussed:

  • The Marcy Lab School’s journey to becoming an impactful alternative education pathway 
  • The role technology plays in correcting challenges in society
  • Why excellent pedagogy and 1:1 feedback prepares students for career success 
  • The profound impact of equipping Black and Brown students with language and learning that validates their lived experiences
  • How to nurture and scale an ecosystem for alternative education

Guest Bio

Reuben Ogbonna is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of The Marcy Lab School, an alternative education opportunity for underrepresented and underserved high school graduates that focuses on launching financially rewarding and purpose-driven careers in tech. Born and raised in Raleigh, North Carolina, his family is split between Imo State, Nigeria and Shreveport, Louisiana.

Previously, Reuben coached teachers across New York City as a Director at Teach for America. He also served as the Dean of Students at Coney Island Prep High School and taught 8th-grade math in the greater New York City area. He has a Bachelor of Science in Economics from Duke University. 



Podcast Transcript

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Speaker 1:
You’re listening to An Educated Guest, a podcast that brings together great minds in higher ed to delve deeper into the innovations and trends guiding the future of education and careers, hosted by the Executive Vice President and GM of Wiley University Services and Talent Development, Todd Zipper.

Todd Zipper:
Hello, I’m Todd Zipper, host of An Educated Guest. On today’s show, I speak with Ruben Ogbonna, Co-Founder and Executive Director at the Marcy Lab School. The Marcy Lab School is an alternative education opportunity for underrepresented, underserved high school graduates, giving them the opportunity to make great strides in tech. The key takeaways from our discussion today. First, Marcy Lab School’s genesis and journey to becoming an impactful alternative education pathway. Second, the role technology plays in correcting some of society’s challenges, and how the Marcy Lab School is helping students tap into their potential for leadership and growth in the industry.

Todd Zipper:
Third, the importance of excellent pedagogy and one-on-one feedback on preparing students for career success. Fourth, the profound impact of equipping Black and Brown students with language and learning that enables them to express their lived experiences as they prepare to enter their careers. Lastly, how to nurture an ecosystem for alternative education pathways and considerations for doing it at scale. Ruben, thank you for being here today.

Ruben Ogbonna:
So excited to be here. Thank you for having me, Todd.

Todd Zipper:
Excellent. I’m really excited to talk to you about how you’re shaking up the higher ed industry. But first, tell us a little bit about your background. Previously, you were a math teacher, correct?

Ruben Ogbonna:
I was, yeah. I was a middle school math teacher, I was a high school math teacher. Now, I started my career at a performing arts high school in Atlanta. I was a teacher for America Corps member. Didn’t know that I wanted to make a career out of education. I was just a disillusioned former econ major that was trying to find a way to do something that actually made an impact. Found my way into the through, and I really haven’t looked back ever since.

Todd Zipper:
Did you always have a passion for technology, which is mostly what you’re focused on, from an education perspective, today?

Ruben Ogbonna:
No, not at all, in fact. I remember it was my senior year at Duke University, I made friends with this really cool, kind of weird a group of guys. In fact, it was all guys back then. The tech industry has since tried to really correct for gender equity. But this really cool group of guys on Duke’s campus that felt like they were ahead of their time. Back in that time, in the early 2010s, if you were on Duke’s campus, you either wanted to be an investment banker, a consultant, or you might have been pre-law or pre-med. That was pretty much it. I bet 80% of any given senior class fell into one of those four buckets. But these guys were all into entrepreneurship.

Ruben Ogbonna:
One of them was much older, like five years older than the rest of us, because he had started a company, and then dropped out of school, and then grew the company and sold it and came back. Another guy had started a company on campus, where folks were buying and selling textbooks. Others were looking at startups once they graduated, and these were all the fields and experiences that I had no prior experience with. One of the things that they all had in common was that they were rockstar engineers. They were computer science majors, and they could build the things that would ultimately form the foundation for the companies that they would launch.

Ruben Ogbonna:
I remember sitting down with them and taking a look at their personal projects, and just being blown away. It was like they were magicians. They were creating things with their hands, that ultimately would impact other people’s lives, and that they would later end up making money on. I just remember thinking like, “Huh, you all have this secret that you all are keeping to yourself. Why didn’t y’all call me? Maybe I wanted to build a company with you.” I just remember thinking like, huh. Like if I could go back and do would all over again, I would build this skillset myself, I would walk down your path.

Ruben Ogbonna:
I was a senior, and so maybe too late to go back in time, but I thought I had this opportunity to go into a classroom. Just because I never was exposed to this, I took it upon myself as a responsibility to make sure that my students would be. I said, I missed that on this way, but my students would certainly have everything that they need to launch their own careers in tech. So I got into the math classroom and did a lot of self-learning with my students. It’s like, if you finish a homework assignment early, or if you were bored or lacked engagement, we would jump on Khan Academy or Udacity had just came out around the time, and we would do these coding classes together. A lot of students developed a passion for technology through that, and that’s the foundation for my own passion for technology.

Todd Zipper:
Hmm. So it takes a lot of courage and determination to start a business, and in this case, for you, a school, especially for someone who’s still relatively early in your career. So can you tell us about how you got the idea for the Marcy Lab School, and how did you get it off the ground?

Ruben Ogbonna:
This was, in fact, many years in the making. I started my teaching career in Atlanta in a traditional public district school. It was a beautiful school environment, with so much love, so much respect for community, a lot of longevity and seniority amongst the teaching ranks. It’s the type of school where alumni from 10 years past will come back to the football game for homecoming. It was there where I learned that what a joyful, loving, community school building looked like.

Ruben Ogbonna:
Of course, we struggled with all the other systemic challenges that a large urban public school would deal with. At that time, I was in the Teach for America network, and what would happen is that a lot of the public charter schools from up north, the big charter management networks, the [inaudible 00:05:52] of the world, Uncommon Schools would come down to Atlanta, and they would recruit Teach for America teachers. They would say, “Hey, you’re here for two years. But when you finish, you should come up to New York and work with us. We have these really cool schools that are serving a population that looks just like the one you’re serving here, except all of our kids go to college at the end.”

Ruben Ogbonna:
I remember thinking like, “What do you mean all the kids go to college?” I’m at a traditional public school, and we’re hustling to try to get the majority of our students just to graduate on time, and these schools are saying that all of their kids are going off to college. I remember thinking like, “Huh. If I ever had an opportunity to go up to New York, I want to see what that’s all about.” And so my wife… My girlfriend at the time, my wife now, who was also a Teach for America Atlanta Corps member ended up applying to graduate school to study international affairs, and she got into Columbia. So I was like, “Okay, guess I’m moving up to New York.”

Ruben Ogbonna:
And so when I got to New York, I hit up those recruiters who I met first when I was in Atlanta, and said, “Hey, I’m here, and I want to take a couple of tours. I know I want to continue teaching. I want to teach at one of your schools.” And so I landed at Uncommon Schools at an all-boys school. I stayed there for one year, and my instructional coach got a principal’s job and took me with him to become a dean at another incredible school called Coney Island Prep.

Ruben Ogbonna:
In both of those settings, I saw how the sausage is made, so to speak, saw what it takes in order to be able to say 100% of our seniors walked away from our school with a college acceptance letter. We were able to say that, and it was really, really cool. We took a lot of pride in it, and we were celebrated for it. Of course, the experience that I had inside the machine was one of figuring out after our students got that college acceptance letter, and after they had been celebrated on stage, how in the world they were going to pay for that experience.

Ruben Ogbonna:
It was often an anxiety inducing, it was nerve-wracking. Because the story that doesn’t get told about college a lot in this country is that every single year, a ton of really promising, hardworking students will get into the college of their dreams, not be able to afford to attend. To have to counsel a student through that challenge, especially a student’s who grown up in a school system that says the only way to a successful life is through this four-year college degree, even if it means you’re taking out six figures of student loan debt to pursue it, to counsel student through that problem is really hard.

Ruben Ogbonna:
I saw time and time again, my students fall into what I consider to be two of the biggest challenges in higher education: inaccessibility, financially, students taking on a mortgage’s worth of student loan debt to pursue a major that would track them towards a career that I did not see as a viable pathway to being able to service that amount of student loan debt. That’s the one. And then I also saw students who would forego the student loan debt trap, and instead decided to go to colleges that were cheaper, that didn’t have the sticker price of the historically Black college, or the Ivy league college, or the liberal arts college that they had gotten into.

Ruben Ogbonna:
What they didn’t know at that time was that those colleges have outcomes that leave a lot to be desired. They’re going to colleges that have graduation rates that are in the 20s, in the 30s, that have average starting salaries for their graduates at $30,000 per year, $40,000 per year in a city like New York. And so for so many reasons, unrelated to how hardworking, talented, or how much potential they have, I saw students who would fail to reach their potential through this system that we told them was their answer to every problem that they had, and it was so frustrating.

Ruben Ogbonna:
We keep in touch with our students, and we watch them stumble through the many roadblocks of the traditional college system, and it caused us to ask the question… I say, us, me and my co-founder, Maya, asked the question of, what could a different post-secondary school experience look like for these students?

Todd Zipper:
Yes. That’s exactly what you’re creating here. So couple questions, as you unpack what the Marcy Lab School… First, where’d you come up with the name? It’s a creative name.

Ruben Ogbonna:
Oh yeah. My wife and I were living on Marcy Avenue at that time, and one of my favorite rappers, Jay-Z, was raised here, on Marcy Avenue. I think it’s just a historic street in Brooklyn. For so many people, Jay-Z represents a dream realized, and I think to pay how much to that name is something that we wanted to do. That word lab is reflective of the way that we see our work. We see this as one big experiment. Every year, we’re testing a set of hypotheses in service of the greater mission of creating a more equitable, accessible post-secondary education option for students who’ve been locked out of traditional higher education.

Todd Zipper:
Excellent. So I’ve read on your website… I love this quote here, which is, “The Marcy Lab School democratizes the path to six figure income in tech for Black and Brown students.” So that pretty much says what your mission is right there. Could you unpack a little bit about what this alternative type of school is? We know what the four-year degree looks like, although that’s starting to look different as the non-traditional student or what we’re now calling the new majority student is. In some cases, you’re so that student, although in many levels, those are people that are well above the traditional 18-year-old student, which I think you’re focusing on right now. We know the two-year associates degree path. How are you different from that? Can you just help us understand this?

Ruben Ogbonna:
Yeah. Let me give you a high level overview of what it is that we’re doing, and maybe creep into to why we’ve decided to structure things this way. We are a one-year post-secondary school, an alternative to college, and we’re serving students who otherwise would be attending four-year, potentially two-year colleges. They would likely be attending lesser selective four-year and two-year institutions, students who would not necessarily have the high school backgrounds that would indicate that they would attend a college like NYU or Columbia, but they’re smart, talented, hardworking students, nonetheless.

Ruben Ogbonna:
In fact, they, in our opinion, are the students who fully embody what it means to be a college student in this country. Oftentimes, we use the words, untapped middle. When you think of any high school senior class, you can think of those students in that upper quartile. They’re going to gain admissions to the types of schools and have endowments that allow them to meet the needs of all the students that they serve. They have the career readiness programs, they have the extracurricular programs that make a well-rounded and excellent college experience.

Ruben Ogbonna:
If you’re coming from a low income background, you’re likely going to have your financial needs met by one of these colleges that likely fall in the top 25 or top 50 of the U.S. News & World rankings. In short, we think those students are taken care of, they’re good, and they’re going to be supported by nonprofits, like Posse and Breakthrough, that are going to help them make the transition into this unfamiliar environment. But in short, the students in that top 25% of the senior class, they’re good, college is working for them.

Ruben Ogbonna:
We think about the students at that bottom, perhaps 25%, students who are aspirational and want to make something of their futures, but have the academic profile of someone who is not considered to be college-ready, perhaps, by SAT score or GPA. Their background suggests that they will be looking for a high quality program that will prepare them for the workforce, and perhaps opens up the possibility for college for them later in life, they’re served by workforce development programs that have done an incredible job for decades of helping transition folks into upwardly mobile careers of folks, like Year Up, for example, or Empower.

Ruben Ogbonna:
And then we think about all those students who are in the middle, the students that every single high school guidance counselor or teacher can identify with, they certainly are going to college. If you pull that student in the hall and ask their teacher or their counselor where they’re going, it’s like, yeah, they’re going to college. They’re not going to go to an [inaudible 00:13:31] college, they’re not going to get a full scholarship. It’s one of their local state colleges, but they definitely are going to college.

Ruben Ogbonna:
And then if you were to ask them, no matter what state they’re in or what city they’re located in, name, potentially, a college that they might be competitive for, they’re going to name a college that, by the data, has outcomes that we wouldn’t consider to be satisfactory for our own children. We want to serve those students, because we believe that there’s a ton untapped potential there. Not just untapped potential for earning power, but untapped potential for leadership and growth.

Ruben Ogbonna:
And so instead of a four-year program, we put them through a one-year rigorous, both technical and non-technical academic program. Our first and only major at the moment is focused on computer science and software engineering. We’re preparing students to take on roles with the title of software engineer, associate software engineer, QA, or adjacent roles. We target salaries that have a floor of $80,000 per year, have a ceiling… highest Marcy Lab School salary is over $200,000 per year for their first job.

Ruben Ogbonna:
And so the technical components are what we believe make the best of a really good collegiate computer science program, inspired by the career-applicable skills found in a for-profit coding bootcamp. If they had a baby, that would be our technical curriculum. What makes, I think, our program special, and why we’re uniquely suited to serve the student population that we do is because we focus just as much, if not more, on the non-technical coursework, civic studies, race and identity development, career fluency, financial literacy. Our students read the authors that inspired us, and that we think are some of the most important authors of our time, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Michelle Alexander, Beverly Tatum, James Baldwin.

Ruben Ogbonna:
They talk about how technology can play a role in correcting some of society’s biggest challenges today, and how, in fact, they are the people that are going to be playing a role in correcting them. And so you put those together, and a student walks away from the Marcy Lab School with a job that any top Ivy league computer science graduate would be envious of, but they also have the mindsets, the network, the community that allows them to thrive in that job and move up in their careers, as well.

Todd Zipper:
I love how you’re talking about the baby between the two different models. I’ve, obviously, been, myself, studying the coding bootcamp model, really from the beginning, and we’ve done a bunch of stuff at Wiley. It’s unrealistic to ask somebody in six weeks or eight weeks, or maybe even 12 weeks, to have some kind of life transformation. A year is much more realistic, right? To allow them to, obviously, learn the technical and hard skills, but also some of those human skills, soft skills that you’re talking about, that just come with time and experience. Are you building any kind of intern or applied learning models, like you’re talking about the lab, into their one-year journey with you?

Ruben Ogbonna:
Yeah. The last quarter of our year-long program is for application, and it looks like one of two pathways, what we call either our practicum program or our capstone program, is what students are tracked into by their last quarter. Practicum is… like it sounds, it’s engineering and practice. It’s an internship or an apprenticeship with one of our partner companies. The goal of that is not to gain exposure to the technology industry, but is actually to demonstrate that you can add value to a team that is shipping products in the real world. The ideal outcome for each of those is a conversion to a full-time job by the end of that period.

Ruben Ogbonna:
There are some students who are better suited or have an interest in further exploring their curiosity in the software engineering space, and our capstone is like our in-house apprenticeship. We ask students to work in teams, to complete some research-based advanced project in some field software engineering. It could be on deployment, infrastructure, it could be product design. But at the end of that three-month capstone project, our students are dealing with… have a project that demonstrates their ability to deal with concepts that would only be asked of someone in the field to contend with once they get their first promotion, technologies that typically only software engineer [inaudible 00:17:34] or early mid-level engineers get exposure to.

Ruben Ogbonna:
So we’ve had students who have built their own load balancers, or students who built their own component libraries. And so what we find is that when our students are able to take those projects into the interview process, they’re able to speak the language of their interviewer and demonstrate a level of experience that often isn’t seen with fresh college grads or bootcamp grads.

Todd Zipper:
So I know you’re breaking the model, revising the model in a lot of different ways, maybe reforming the model is a better term. Also, in the admissions process. I don’t think you accept ask for SATs or ACT scores or GPAs, but yet these individuals have to be at the highest level of performance to get these jobs which you’re talking about here. How do you think about the admissions process? What do you do? I’m sure it’s rigorous, I’d love to understand that a little bit better.

Ruben Ogbonna:
Yeah. 100%. I’m I’m going to take the long way around to that answer, because you said something that was really thoughtful, that they have to be at the highest level of performance in order to compete for these jobs. That is true. I think what we see in terms of growth, from day zero to the end of our program, is greater than what exists at the traditional college, but even more so, than the most selective in elite colleges. Our country’s top colleges do a great job of accepting students who have the resources and academic background that would lead you to believe that they’re going to be very successful, no matter what intervention you apply between ages 18 and 22.

Ruben Ogbonna:
For us, we’re unapologetic about our core belief, which is that great teaching really, really matters. Excellent pedagogy matters, it makes a difference. It made all the difference in the world when they were 14, 15, and 16. But for some reason, when they turn 18 and they go off to college, we have a society… as a society, that has accepted that it’s okay for them to sit in a room with 200 other 18-year-olds and listen to one person reading from a legal pad. And then we wonder why don’t make the type of academic gains necessary to be competitive for incredible jobs.

Ruben Ogbonna:
We push our students, we push the hell out of our students, and we push our instructors, so they know how to push our students and support them at the same time. And so most Marcy Lab School students come in having little to no coding experience at all. And then by the time they graduate, they’re competing in the interview process with students who went to schools like Cornell and Dartmouth and Yale and UVA and Rutgers, cetera. Someone might hear that and say, “Well, that’s impossible. You’re selling me something.”

Ruben Ogbonna:
Well, think about if you took computer science one on one at one of our country’s greatest CS institutions. If you took it at MIT, if you took it at Harvard, you took it at Carnegie Mellon, how many times, Todd, would you guess a freshman or a sophomore might get feedback from a professor in an average CS course?

Todd Zipper:
From the actual professor themselves, not even a teaching assistant?

Ruben Ogbonna:
Yeah.

Todd Zipper:
Probably, you can count that on one hand at best.

Ruben Ogbonna:
Yeah. Probably zero. So-

Todd Zipper:
Right.

Ruben Ogbonna:
[crosstalk 00:20:31] include TAs. How often might you get feedback from a TA?

Todd Zipper:
Maybe five times.

Ruben Ogbonna:
Right. Couple midterms, maybe a couple-

Todd Zipper:
Yeah. Exactly.

Ruben Ogbonna:
Yeah. Our students are getting feedback from their professors at the Marcy Lab School every single day, written feedback and verbal feedback every single day from someone who previously got paid to write software at a competitive company.

Todd Zipper:
This is really groundbreaking. I want to ask you a question in a second about scale. But you’re not afraid to lean into… I loved how you frame this middle 50%. I think that’s what you talk talked about, which is, obviously, the vast majority of learners out there that you feel like you can serve and, essentially, take from very to little or no coding experience, to getting software engineering jobs in one year. That is incredible, that’s groundbreaking. It also shows how much instruction matters, which is what you’re talking about, and we take for granted because you and I went to some good schools, and we both had similar experiences, where we had maybe feedback a half a dozen times in an entire quarter, and we crammed for a final exam just to get by to the next step, which is not mastery of knowledge.

Ruben Ogbonna:
Right. Yeah. I think for us, it’s such a… it’s a responsibility, because the stakes are so much higher for our students, because we’re intentionally working in communities where the safety net is not as strong, it’s more porous. And so to charge a student $30,000, and to not do everything humanly possible to sure that they make it through and reach their full potential, it shouldn’t be acceptable, but, in fact, I think that’s like par for the course, oftentimes, in our higher education system.

Todd Zipper:
Hmm. So how do you charge for this one-year program?

Ruben Ogbonna:
The program is free of cost to students. This is our third year, and we’re been fortunate to have a network of supporters and partners who are also very curious about this experiment that we’re running. We happen to be funded largely by corporations, corporate foundations, and family foundations that want to see this model grow and learn from it, and be able to proliferate our learnings to larger players in the system.

Ruben Ogbonna:
When we think about like the long term sustainability of the program, there’s two pathways that we’re really excited about. The first is our employer partners investing back into the program that they’re benefiting from. We have an incredible set of employer partners that have come to rely on the Marcy Lab School for a consecutive years, for the majority of their early career engineering hiring, certainly the majority of their diverse early career engineering hiring. So we’re excited for them to be able to invest in the program to offset the cost of operating. Also, we’re pursuing avenues to tap into federal and state funds that are allocated towards post-secondary and career training.

Todd Zipper:
So this isn’t an outcomes-based, or an income share type agreement program. Obviously, there’s plenty of income coming down the pike for these individuals. This is free of charge, and they jump right into these jobs? Just want to make sure I’m understanding that.

Ruben Ogbonna:
Yes, that’s right.

Todd Zipper:
That’s really incredible. So how do you think about scale? How do you think about… Because I know you’re just getting started off, you can tell us how many students are, right now, enrolled. But how do you think about this impacting thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of students in the coming years?

Ruben Ogbonna:
Yeah. 100%. We are just getting started. Our first year, our first… our pilot class in 2019 was nine students. We saw 30 students last year, we’ll likely do 60 students this year, we’ll likely do a little more than a hundred students next year. So we’re just ramp up. When we think about our medium term prospects for scale, we want to be operating at this size of a small college here in New York City. The idea, I think, most kind of… So we’re incorporated as a nonprofit. Most nonprofits that exist in our sector, it seems like the standard pathway would be to get to the scale of a couple hundred in New York City, and then look up and figure out what other regional tech ecosystems could also benefit from a similar a program.

Ruben Ogbonna:
We were really clear in the very beginning that we did not set out to, nor are we in the business of trying to start a coding bootcamp or an incredible coding bootcamp. We’re trying to create a college, a true college alternative for our students. And so operating at the scale of a small college, serving a few thousand students per year in New York City looks like multiple app academic tracks that mirror the same ethos and the same bar for engagement and rigor that our software engineering program has.

Ruben Ogbonna:
When we’re operating at the scale of a small college, serving a couple thousand students a year in New York City, we’re going to be able to influence policy in a more meaningful way, we’ll have a seat at the table of industry in a more meaningful way, and it creates an even better student experience, a depth and breadth of relationships that are there. Interdisciplinary, professional academic, and just social dialogue begins to look and feel more like a true college.

Ruben Ogbonna:
And then there’s this question of like, this group that we’re trying to solve a problem for is really, really big. Even when we’re serving a couple thousand students a year, just in New York City, that has a tiny drop in the bucket. And so the question is, how do we have the type of impact that makes a difference at scale? What it is like, by seeding an ecosystem. The way that I think about this is like, the Marcy Lab School is going to continue to grow, we’re going to increase our footprint here in New York City, we’re going to… At some point in the distant future, we’ll look at like, what other cities could benefit from a model like the Marcy Lab School? But it’s not about the Marcy Lab School, it’s about the other schools that we will inspire.

Ruben Ogbonna:
Someone needs to be, right now, building the Marcy Lab School for journalism, or the Marcy Lab School for a suite of business careers. We want to be able to show people that this student population has the potential to do two things, achieve academically at a level that they haven’t been given credit for before, and to, B, be able to break into industry sectors that previously had been gate-kept from them because they didn’t have a degree. If we can show people that students from the Marcy Lab School come out of here with six-figure job offers, with equity, with health insurance, with retirement plans, then somebody is going to be inspired to figure out what other industry they can shake up that way.

Ruben Ogbonna:
I think if we have this world… When I think about the world that I want my little girl, my 10-month-old daughter, to grow up in, I want her to be able to graduate from high school here in New York City and know that she has a ton of options. She’s going to look at all the colleges that she could attend, and she’s going to look at all of the schools that look like the Marcy Lab School, that ask her to not sacrifice anything in terms of her near term or long term earning potential or career optionality, and she’s going to see them as viable options, too.

Todd Zipper:
Yeah. I want to keep hitting on the funding aspect, because I’m only guessing here, but I’m assuming that your cost per student is significantly lower. Not only is it only one year versus two or four years, that alone brings down the cost dramatically. But my guess is you’re just operating more leanly. So we should talk about that. But ultimately, there’s tuition. That’s what exists, whether it’s funded by federal loans, whether it’s a subsidized by the government or private pay, there’s a model that is largely broken for a lot of folks, but it works. Now there’s a whole movement around free college, which I’m still trying to wrap my head around, because you’re essentially offering free college, but it feels very different here. Like, you talked about the…

Todd Zipper:
So if you give free college to… Again, community colleges, I’m a huge fan of, I’ve talked a lot about on this podcast, but some of the results, some of the outcomes are challenging. Now, there’s a whole reasons why, we don’t want to get into this right now. But the outcomes that you’re talking about at a dramatically lower scale are completely different. And so how do you think about this? I just threw a lot at you, but the idea of offering a free or a low cost education in a way that can scale. Eventually, do you have to charge tuition, or eventually do you have to partner with the government to offer these funds up? How are you thinking about this?

Ruben Ogbonna:
Yeah. We have decided, as a society, or… I don’t know who played a part in this decision. We pay for post-secondary education in this country. That’s not a decision that the Marcy Lab School gets to make. It would be great to live in a society where we invest in the postsecondary education of all of our citizens. That is not where we are right now. And so as a startup that aspires to be a college or a challenge at a college, whether or not we pay i not question that’s up to us, it’s a question that’s up to our policy makers.

Ruben Ogbonna:
And so in short, at one point in the future, we likely will charge a tuition, but it’s not the priority in this moment. Because if we can focus on doing a couple things really, really well right now, we’re going to be able to make the decision about what the sticker price of the Marcy Lab School is, we’ll be able to make that decision from a position of power. One, we have to focus on the outcomes right now, we have to focus on really doing a good service to our employer partners, and, three, we have to focus on determining what is core to the program model, and what can be left alone. If we can do that, and by the time we…

Ruben Ogbonna:
Whenever that time comes around, we decide to put a sticker price on the Marcy Lab School and have students pay into the program, we’ll be doing so after we already have a consistent growing reliable pipeline of employer partner contributions, we’ll be doing so after we have the right set of government interventions in place that also offset the cost of our program. We’re already doing it from a position of power, in that our program is 25% of the length of a traditional college degree. And so we can do so in a way that favors our students first.

Ruben Ogbonna:
The flexible repayment movement, the income share agreement movement, certainly, of course, began with like great intentions. But at the end of the day, the sticker price is the sticker price. We can get as creative as we want about how we repay, when we repay, but a loan is a loan, and if it has to be repaid, the price matters. I think one of the downsides of the emphasis that has been placed on the repayment model is that we’ve lost track of the thing that really, really matters, and that is the price of the program, that students are ultimately on the hook for.

Todd Zipper:
Yeah. You’re really challenging all aspects of the model, and willing to rip it up, keep what’s working, what’s not working. I just absolutely love what you’re doing here. One of the things that really is hitting home for me is… you keep coming back to it, is your employer partners, whether they’re funding some of the education or they have the job waiting for these students at the end is really powerful. I call it employer down or right to left education, that’s increasing movement. I think you’ve just defaulted to that, which I think is part of the idea of driving these incredible outcomes. You know your costs are going to be better than the typical model, eventually, and I think… I really just want to highlight that. Eventually, you’ll figure out the funding model at scale, as long as the outcomes are there for your stakeholders, which… your learners and your employers.

Todd Zipper:
A few other questions for you around the model. It seems like you’re doing a lot of stuff. Going back to that career and the employer, I’ve read some things that you help them with their resume or their LinkedIn networking, not just LinkedIn profile, but their networking. You’ve talked about out a mentor, and assigning them someone there. Can you unpack some of that, as well? Because I think that brings to life that it’s not just learning a course in algorithms, but you’re actually helping people to build a career at the same time.

Ruben Ogbonna:
Yeah. 100%. I’m going to start at a place that you might not necessarily traditionally view as career development, but I see it as is that, plus so much more. Our students are just finishing up a unit in their leadership and development course, they’re finishing up a unit on mass incarceration in the criminal justice system. They just finished Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and this is part of a larger unit on systemic oppression. There’s something that is just so powerful about a bunch of young people who like…

Ruben Ogbonna:
At this point, if I walk into a room at my school, I can say with confidence that you all will be making $100,000 or more in eight months. I can say that with confidence, because the job’s already taken care of. You do what you have to do, then that job is waiting for you. These are a bunch of students from the community that I call home. To be able to say that, like, you’re going to be stepping into a position of both economic, therefore, social power, and you have, over the course of the past one year, not just analyzed like JavaScript internals and data structures and algorithms and parse by value and parse by reference, but the set of policies that have led to the over policing of your community.

Ruben Ogbonna:
You’ve understood that it’s a distinct set of individuals that organized and implemented policy that had an impact on you and people that came before you and your community, and therefore that you know that you can be one of the people who actually corrects for that. It’s like, one, we’re going to give language to your lived experience. When we teach in our units terms like microaggression, or implicit bias, what that’s doing to… or intersectionality, what that’s doing for a young person is like, it’s validating the things that they have already lived. It’s like, huh, I like that. I experienced something…

Ruben Ogbonna:
The way that racism works in our society is like the way gaslighting works. Like, oh no, no, you didn’t really experience that, it’s a [inaudible 00:34:15] of your imagination. It’s like, no, here is our a set of scholars who so closely identify with this experience that you have, that they have created a set of terms to more help to help us more precisely identify with them when they come up in the world, so that you can note it in your lived experience. So one, it’s real, this thing that you’re dealing with. And then two, to orient them in the world the set of leaders who have created structures to help them see themselves as leaders and change agents for these things.

Ruben Ogbonna:
And so when you walk into that engineering pod, we know, because of the state of the industry, you will like to be the only Black woman [inaudible 00:34:48]. Here’s a set of terms that are going to describe some experiences that you have. One, you can come back to your community, and we can talk about these together, because we have a set of shared language. But two, for the past year, every single day, you have had a bunch of really smart, loving, caring, people, breathing life into you, and sharing how much we believe that you are going to be a part of the solution to this thing, that your very existence just adds value to that team, they’re better because you’re there, and you’re going to be a part of changing that culture for the better for you and for the people that come after you.

Todd Zipper:
Yeah. That’s really powerful. A term that comes to mind for me is job-ready. So it’s one thing for a certain population to be job-ready, it’s another thing for your population that you’re serving. The things you have to do is just more and different to get them job-ready. Because the employer, at the end of the day, needs them to produce, needs them to lead, and you’re giving them all the tools, not just, okay, I’ve got the salary, but to be successful there, and, like you’re saying, even going farther than that, to change the culture in the right direction. The level of maturity that these folks have to go through must be tremendous. In my company, we’re learning some of the lessons and realities that you’re talking about, at a much… not in college, a much later date in the process. So they have to run through a lot of stuff to get to this job-ready place. Really powerful.

Ruben Ogbonna:
Thank you

Todd Zipper:
Wow, this is… I’m just digesting all this right now. What other areas are you unintentionally disrupting? I feel like you’re just starting from scratch almost. You’re looking at the model, and not intentionally trying to break it, but where else do you see disruption happening?

Ruben Ogbonna:
The industry, that’s where our systems change agenda comes in. Our students are often the first engineers to join their team, that do not have a traditional college degree. They may be working beside peers that have come from excellent coding bootcamps, but they may have a college degree in philosophy or political science. And so we come from the same peer group, but we’re now three years in, and we’ve had companies that have hired from our fellowship for three straight years, and like they’re changing, meaningfully, the demographic makeup of these engineering teams. As a result, recruiters are beginning to think differently about where talent comes from.

Ruben Ogbonna:
And so it’s not about just the pathway from the Marcy Lab School onto Square Spaces or Spotifys or the New York Times or J.P Morgan’s engineering team, but it’s about how we shift the mindset of hiring managers and recruiters. If you can recruit from the Marcy Lab School, then certainly you can recruit from Texas Southern, and certainly you can recruit from Hunter College, if you’ve only, in the past, recruited from Carnegie Mellon and Stanford and Duke University.

Todd Zipper:
There was an article today that talked about Google’s certifications. They’ve been doing this for a couple years now, they get a ton of attention when they come out with a new data point, which they quote hundreds of thousands of students taking their courses or there’s certifications, they’re all free. There’s some really in headlines, and I want to get reflections, it’s a little bit of a loaded question here. But they’re talking about a hundred thousand millions, they’re talking about, they will accept folks going through these four courses or these six courses equivalent to their typical like, you got to go to get a computer science degree at one of those schools you just mentioned, Ruben.

Todd Zipper:
I love it. I love that they understand what the employers, one of the largest employers out there in tech. But do they really think people can go through that experience, self-directed? If it’s free, it’s most likely self-directed in the hundred thousand or millions, and get the same result as a Marcy Lab School? I feel like they need to partner up with you and build scaffolding in a way that just can’t be done in a self-directed way, with taking some courses online and some pretty videos.

Ruben Ogbonna:
Yeah. Yeah. That’s tough, because on one hand, you’re creating high quality content that people can access at scale is unequivocally a good thing. But to your point, there’s a question of like, how likely is it… What is the total… Of the share of folks that have accessed this content, what proportion of them have a capability of being completely successful on their own, autonomously navigating the self-directed course? This stuff is hard. There’s a reason why these jobs command the salaries that they do, just because like it is challenging.

Ruben Ogbonna:
I think when those things come out, and they hit headlines, one of the potential risk is that we lead people in influential positions to believe that the challenge of getting some went into a great job all along has been poor access to quality content, and that was never the issue. There’s always been good stuff out there. We’re improving on the margins, but it was never about the content. We’re writing open source software. By definition, it’s literally all online. The question, though, is, how do we clearly demonstrate the people what the bar is for rigor at the level of like interview onboarding and success on the job? How do we provide them with the supports in order to get there? And then how do we… The thing that’s not mentioned is, how do we bring them into the networks that allow them to access those jobs in the first place?

Todd Zipper:
Hmm. All right. We’re getting close to wrapping up here. So can you look out five to 10 years… What vision do you have for the Marcy Lab School? What does success look like?

Ruben Ogbonna:
10 years out, we’re serving a couple thousand students per year across multiple academic pathways. We’ve inspired a few other models that look just like this and are meeting the needs of communities that were not equipped to serve that are training students for career pathways that are not within our sphere of excellence or within our areas of interest, and we’re learning together. We, as a collective, are pushing a political agenda that makes it so that these alternative models are more accessible to students. We changed the narrative. We’re beginning to push the narrative of what people view as prerequisites for success.

Ruben Ogbonna:
One of the things I think about Todd… At this point, because the outcomes… there are enough proof points for people to see this viable pathway. But one of the things that people are attached to is the narrative of what we believe college to mean in this country and what a college degree means for your social standing in society. That is mythology that we created, and so we can undo that. One of the ways that I think about it, Todd, is there used to be a time… Prior to the creation of standardized testing in the ’60s, there used to be a time in this country that if you wanted to go to a school like Dartmouth or Brown or Columbia or Harvard, you pretty much had to go to an elite boarding school. There used to be a time where your social standing was tied to like, what boarding school did you go to? Not anymore.

Ruben Ogbonna:
It’s like, you could have went to Exeter, and I went to Southeast Raleigh High School in Wake County in Raleigh, but we both to the same place, and it’s like, if that were the case… We both can acknowledge that we had different experiences, but there’s not a single part of you that believes that you’re better than me because you went to some boarding school, because we’re both here. We’ve already seen that happen once before. And so you tell me, if we have this world 10 years from now, where there are a ton of accessible options that are leading students to great outcomes, the mythology of what college means for someone down their inherent being, that becomes stripped away.

Todd Zipper:
Hmm. Yeah. I like this idea that you’re coming back to, in terms of inspiring others with the model. I interviewed the founder of the Minerva Project, and they’re a really exciting model.

Ruben Ogbonna:
Oh, [inaudible 00:42:31]. Success with them.

Todd Zipper:
Same am I. I think it’s a similar… They’re 10 years ahead of you guys in their experiment, but I think they’re trying to now figure out the licensing, if you will, of their model, because it’s unlikely we’re going to have a university with millions of students. We’re going to have lots of shapes and sizes, but the innovations that Minerva or Marcy Lab School is creating, I think we need to pay attention to. That would be interesting, and I’m going to look forward to following your story, for sure. So is there one thing you want to make sure our listeners today walk away understanding from our conversation?

Ruben Ogbonna:
Yeah. When we first came up with this idea, and we bounced around the city of New York, talking to anyone who we thought could help move this idea forward, one of the biggest challenges that we faced, Todd, was that we’d walk into a room with some potential foundation investors or with some potential employer partners, perhaps, potential individual donors, and say like, “We had this idea that would ultimately call students to college and its value into question.” And they would say, “Well, I don’t know if I agree with you. College was the best time in my life.” And I would say, “Well, Todd, and that makes sense, because you went to Stanford, you went to one of the best colleges in the world.”

Ruben Ogbonna:
It was on that listening tour that I realized that most people don’t realize that not all colleges are good, that not all colleges have great outcomes. If there’s one thing that I want people to walk away with knowing is that in fact, the data would show that like many colleges leave students worse off than when they came. Many colleges do not graduate the majority of students that enroll, and have very, very high student loan default rates. And so, in fact, telling a student to go to college, just because it is a college is dangerous. It’s dangerous advice for young people, and I think it will take another five to 10 years for us to see the full impacts of the damage that we’ve caused to communities by telling every single one of them that college, writ large, is a net positive without holding colleges accountable to excellent outcomes.

Todd Zipper:
Amen to that, Ruben. I’m singing from the same hymn book. I think there isn’t enough accountability. There’s a reason why we have 1.7 trillion of debt, and I don’t don’t even think students are in paying back mode because of COVID. So who knows what happens when they start that engine back up? And colleges keep enrolling, and not really being held accountable to, are we doing right by these students long term? They’re probably sending messages to folks that graduated. Those that didn’t, they’re not sending any message to, and those messages are, hey, come back and donate.

Ruben Ogbonna:
Yeah.

Todd Zipper:
Well, I wish you all the best. This has been awesome, Ruben. I think you’re doing incredible work, I’m rooting for you, and I can’t wait to see what you do in the future. So, Ruben, it’s been a pleasure. Until next, this has been An Educated Guest.

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