A true alternative to a four-year college?

The Marcy Lab School in New York City aims to offer a traditional college experience in just one year. We talked with co-founder Reuben Ogbonna about experimentation, growth, and student choice in higher ed.

The Marcy Lab School may be one of the nation’s only—if not the only—true alternatives to a traditional four-year college.

Located in Brooklyn, the school offers a one-year, full-time fellowship in software engineering to recent high school graduates who do not hold a bachelor’s degree. It combines a liberal arts curriculum with the hands-on training of a bootcamp, with students reading books about race and politics while they develop skills in web development and data structures.

Students pay nothing to attend the school, which taps philanthropic support to cover the cost of instruction. Marcy Lab also provides coaching, mentoring, and job placement assistance through its employer partners, including Microsoft and JPMorgan Chase.

That support pays off for the school’s graduates—with last year’s class landing software engineering jobs with an average wage of $106K. But the school is very small, with a graduating class of 30 last year, and is still a young experiment with just three years under its belt.

We talked with Reuben Ogbonna, Marcy Lab’s co-founder and executive director, about the always-present questions of growth and scale, what he hears from employers, and how postsecondary education can change to give students better choices.

What does Marcy Lab offer that gives prospective students the confidence to take the leap, versus a local college or university?
Reuben Ogbonna

A: There are many reasons why our fellows choose to learn and start their careers with us, but the two underlying pieces that seem to relate them all is our commitment to community and radical transparency. That’s where I think the confidence to leave a traditional path comes from.

Our students are looking to build life-long friendships and feel appreciated and seen by their peers and their teachers. At most large public colleges, there is often a 1 to 100 student to teacher ratio in core computer science courses, whereas our classrooms operate at a 1 to 12 ratio. At this size, building meaningful connection through collaboration and learning is not only possible, but becomes beautifully inevitable.

We also believe in being transparent about expectations and outcomes with our students. We are upfront about the type of success our students will achieve at The Marcy Lab School. We state it plainly because it’s what the program has been designed for. Our hands-on learning and small class sizes mean our young people have the support needed to ask questions and get meaningful feedback. Our leadership development training strengthens our fellows as “whole people,” not just skilled software engineers. We’re upfront about the technical skills our students will immediately be able to apply to a professional team. And we are committed not only to student success during the program, but after graduation as well as we help them land their first job in the tech sector with salaries upwards of $100,000.

Success at a traditional college is often very murky and unpredictable. So to be able to chart your career success from day one is a real game-changer for our students. 

You obviously have made strong inroads with employers. How? Are there particular types of employers that really get it?

A: Through our strategic partnerships with employers in New York City, we are on a mission to expand the market share of job opportunities for highly-talented software engineers of color who do not possess a degree from a four-year college. In our current landscape, jobs for young people that fall into this category are incredibly slim, but we see this as our opportunity to systematically remove the barriers, such as degree requirements, that shut out students like ours. Together with our partners, we are actively reframing what early talent success can look like.

Partners that “get it” are energized by the ability to co-create innovative new programs like apprenticeships with us directly. They are incredibly student-centric, and firmly believe in the power of growth for our students in professional environments that are fun, challenging, rewarding, and safe.

In addition to shifting the early talent workforce landscape, our partners ultimately recognize our collaboration as a smart business decision: it’s incredibly cost effective—hiring a skilled Marcy Lab fellow leads to higher job retention, and our students are performing at the same level, if not higher, than those from traditional colleges. Our partners are choosing to invest in us and our students just as much as they would students from a four-year college, and that shift speaks volumes.

How many students are you hoping to enroll? And will scale substantially change the way you deliver the necessary hands-on support?

The success of our innovative model has been through intentional experimentation and thoughtful listening to what is working and not working, and then iterating on it. Our aspiration in the next 10 years is to function at the scale of a small college here in New York City, serving around 1,000 to 2,000 students each year. But we will never grow for the sake of growing: the continued investment in our students and staff is our number one priority. For example, keeping the student to instructor ratio 12 to 1 must hold steady for both to feel valued and supported.

For us, it’s really about depth rather than breadth. Typically in our space, scale usually looks like serving a few hundred students in one city, then moving to pilot the program in another. We’ve been approached to do this many times but have intentionally turned these opportunities down because it wouldn’t allow us to refine the depth of our model. It wouldn’t allow us to broaden the job market share we are actively working on with our employer partners. And it wouldn’t allow us the ability to affect hiring policies here in NYC. If we can grow at scale in NYC, that would equal success in our eyes.

And as you mentioned this all takes resources. If we can grow thoughtfully here in NYC, then we can unlock enterprise hiring partnerships, a key revenue driver that would allow us to serve more and more students. In addition, given the structure of our program, federal funding through accreditation would also allow us to continue to invest in the types of students that the Marcy Lab is uniquely designed to serve. Once we are able to achieve this level of scale in New York, we can then begin to explore what it looks like to expand our footprint elsewhere.

How optimistic are you about lower-income students having more and better choices for postsecondary education in coming years than what’s currently possible?

A: We are incredibly proud to say that graduates from The Marcy Lab School are competing for the types of high-paying jobs that were typically only reserved for graduates from competitive four-year colleges. This success only affirms our belief that it shouldn’t take a college degree to have a financially-rewarding career.

But frankly, this shouldn’t only be a low-income student question, but an all student question. The ways in which traditional 4-year colleges are currently failing all students is glaring: annual tuition continues to increase, accrued debt is at an all-time high, students lack support because of bursting class sizes, curriculums continue to draw on antiquated information that is not immediately transferable to a career, and with graduation as the ultimate ‘goal’, the financial or career success of a student after those four years is not a concern. And these issues are only exacerbated when you are a student from a historically underserved community. There’s no wonder why enrollment is on the decline—it’s getting harder and harder to justify the value of college when the return on investment is just so low.

However, I am optimistic that all students will have the ability to make better choices than what’s currently possible. The Marcy Lab School is proof of this step forward. We believe we can achieve this change at scale by cultivating an ecosystem of like-minded organizations who are committed to building better pathways and redefining what success looks like for students across the country. We are already seeing evidence of what this could look like. We have been honored to help organizations, such as The Turing School and Building 21, design and implement their own models to serve similar student populations toward aspirational outcomes.

As this ecosystem continues to grow across the country, real value will come from the sharing of tangible resources, such as formal networks of employers who hire and champion talent from non-traditional pathways, shared curriculums, and federal funding through accreditation. The more we can make it easier for organizations to create the next “Marcy Lab School,” the closer we get to better postsecondary choices for future generations.

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