Why Colleges and Universities Should be Scared of the On Deck Fellowship

How De-coupling the professional degree gets you more bang for the buck.

There’s been an emergence of “pre-accelerator” or “people accelerator” programs—experiences that you can buy your way into with cash, as opposed to potentially valuable future equity, that replicate the education and network provided by the likes of YCombinator. They’re popping up in a variety of different verticals, led by one called On Deck and they’re causing a lot of people to ask the question if a very specific and highly relevant continuing professional education and network is buyable in smaller chunks off the shelf…

Is college worth it?

If you’re asking the question of whether or not you’re better off with additional education, the statistics are pretty clear on this. On average, you are much better off in the US today having attained a degree, particularly an advanced degree than you are with a high school education or less.

That doesn’t mean, however, that you need to spend $50,000 per year on it.

With the cost of a college tuition skyrocketing, people are being a little more discerning about what it is exactly that they’re getting for their money.

I’d break it down as follows:

  1. An academic education - I took some very nice courses in college about Philosophy, the historical development of Asian Economics and Music History. I very much enjoyed them and found them to be intellectually stimulating.

  2. A professional education - Learning to code, run financial spreadsheets, how to design on CAD programs or about the anatomy for pre-med—not to mention career direction itself and a path to a job.

  3. Social development or “Campus life” - Parties! Basketball! Ultimate frisbee!

  4. The network - Unfettered access to everyone else who made the same sucker bet that you did and also hates their job.

  5. Brand - Because you went to Harvard.

You can get any of those things across three basic price tiers of schools—lower cost public schools, middle tier private schools and elite schools. I’ll hold aside any judgement of quality for the moment.

How good is each tier at delivering on the five things we listed?

On the academic education side, I’d argue that the big difference between the Music History classes across schools is really the quality of the teacher. They’re not really making groundbreaking Music History discoveries that would significantly alter the education quality of the intro class and that could be said of most intro classes across a wide variety of liberal arts courses—so it’s not like there’s much there structurally that would give one school a leg up over another except for that person in the room.

And what is teacher quality, anyway? It’s basically some combination of depth of knowledge of the subject and ability to convey that knowledge through communication and some amount of inspiration as well.

While maybe you could make the case at the very elite schools, you might have a higher quality of academic research going on, I think it’s doubtful that the classroom performance is in any way correlated to the price of the school. It’s not even clear that schools are even trying to objectively measure that in any way—so why would one set of schools be better at hiring for it.

We all know that advancement in the academic world is about research—so if you’re not looking to be a Philosophy major, you probably have just as much chance of really getting a lot out of your Intro to European Medieval History course at any state school than you do at a private institution just because you happened to run into a very dedicated and engaging teacher.

I’ll even concede that perhaps the most engaging teachers by reputation—the real standouts—do wind up at the elite schools. I didn’t go to an Ivy, so I couldn’t tell you if every professor, to a person, was a thrill to listen to, but I honestly don’t think I had a better in-classroom experience at Fordham than I would have had at a state school.

Maybe smaller classrooms?

I’ll give you that.

On the continuing professional education side, this is where programs like On Deck really shine. I mean, the bar is so low here, it’s really hard not to be better. Obviously, they’re not currently offering a full-on MBA replacement, for example—so if you don’t have a business background and you want to learn financial modeling, they’re not going to be able to help you today. However, that side of a professional education is a commodity. You can take that course on Coursera for a fraction of the cost of taking it at a top tier university.

What On Deck brings is access to real world knowledge of current practitioners—the ability to hear from real founders and VCs about the deals they’re doing right now, for example. They’re able to do this in a very flexible way, grabbing industry leaders on the fly as the industry evolves in real-time.

Now, don’t get me wrong— Jeff Bussgang’s Harvard MBA course on Launching Technology Ventures is world-class as far as that structure of education goes. Perhaps unfettered access to Payal Kadakia Pujji as she tells the story of how Classitivity became Classpass in a small group is truly an experience that is hard to access elsewhere—but I think back to something that Josh Kopelman told me about his experience. He used to say that founders thought of him as the “e-commerce guy” because he launched and sold Half.com, but when he thinks back to the timeframe of when he started that company, there was no Facebook, no Google ad strategy, and mobile wasn’t even a thing. His knowledge of the e-commerce world was completely out of date.

If I wanted to launch something in the fitness space today in this pandemic world, how relevant would that Classpass discussion be, given that the company launched in 2013, not only pre-pandemic but obviously, pre-Classpass! It kind of reminds me of the idea that all movies are set in a parallel universe where the actor who plays the main character doesn’t exist. It kind of helps to be able to have launched Classpass into a world before Classpass itself changed the game forever, you know?

But still, let’s just concede that by paying up for a Harvard MBA, being in that class with Jeff and Payal gives all of those students a leg up on everyone else that has a strong positive ROI.

What about the next tier down of school and the next tier down of founder? What about that school that isn’t Harvard, but is still expensive—and the founder they bring in started… oh, I don’t know…. Mapquest? Something a bit more outdated… or just something that was smaller in industry impact, like, I don’t, Viaweb.

That’s right—Paul Graham himself, father of YCombinator and Silicon Valley Mediocre White Male Energy Spokesperson, had a rather middling $49 million exit as a founder. One could easily argue that the mediocre exit founder has just as much to share with the students of that middle tier private school as the one who changed the industry at a time when that low hanging fruit was still there to be had.

Or, on the flip side, I could make the case that if you’re not listening to the top tier folks and instead you’re stuck in a classroom with a dinosaur such as Paul Graham trying to make hay out of his dinky exit to arguably the world’s dumbest acquiror, then no price is really worth paying.

Either way, the case for paying up for a professional education kind of breaks down if you’re not at Harvard.

I’d even go as far as to argue that today, the top tier folks like Jeff and Payal are just as likely, if not moreso, to show up at both Harvard and to the cheaper state schools of the world or at On Deck—because the industry is that much more conscious about structural inequality and the diversity issues around pipeline. If Jeff’s motivation is to surface that next great founder—he’s probably going to use a barbell approach, splitting his time with the “best” educated students who were afforded all the benefits of a life that led up to a Harvard education, and then also with the folks who didn’t spend nearly as much. He’ll want exposure to the hackers, the scrappers, and the hustlers who are making the most of their relatively less expensive CUNY education by working twice as hard as the next person and learning everything they can for free or cheap.

It’s that middle tier that has to worry—the students that had the privilege to pay up, but can’t really promise any lecturer that they’re either the best of the best or the ones with the longest road to the top. They’re just some very nice, hardworking upper middle class, not so diverse learners who will get a participation trophy degree, a load of college debt, and are probably going to be behind the financial eight ball after graduation.

It’s those students who really need to question whether or not they weren’t better off just getting the cheapest degree possible just to have it, and enhancing it with professional advancement programs like On Deck. At $2,000, On Deck is a fraction of the spread between the middle tier of private institutions and their public alternatives. You could easily throw in a bunch of skills training courses and still come out way ahead.

But don’t you lose out on seeing your college basketball team make the NCAA tournament? What about Greek life? Campus life?

I’ll make an admission here. I was a college basketball face painter. I was a member of Fordham’s Sixth Man Club for the basketball team and I would paint my face for every home game when I was a Senior. It was a lot of fun, but I also now realize that had I met my wife then, we wouldn’t be married today.

People have fond memories of that kind of college life, but things are changing. College kids are drinking less and less. The Greek and party culture is changing. And, again, if your school doesn’t have a top tier competitive sports program, a lot of schools are finding that dedicating resources to those programs are economically unfeasible.

How long before Fordham’s tier of schools finally makes the admission that its dollars and the tuition dollars of its students are best spent on a new science building versus a new basketball facility?

Plus, it doesn’t seem to be holding back NYU to not have a real campus, sports and party life. I think you’ll find that, going forward, more and more students are going to want their college extracurricular life to be all about the culture you can find in a city, or another country, community service or about work-study programs versus some kind of amusement park in a bubble.

But what about the network?

Well, this is the real Achilles Heel of most colleges and universities. I can’t name a single school whose alumni professional networking experience is as good as the average Slack group of working professionals, combined with healthy participation on Twitter, Clubhouse, LinkedIn., etc.

Frankly, most of these schools aren’t even on these platforms. They’re years behind in the alumni engagement and experience department, having fallen behind on the use of social tools and being too caught up in centrally controlling the experience walled gardens in order to let their communities properly bloom on top of modern tools.

Participants in OnDeck will tell you that the Slack channels of other members and alumni are some of the most useful professional spaces they participate in.

Access to a network is a commodity as we become more and more connected digitally—with the quality of one’s network being more of a factor of how quickly and efficiently one can access it. Twenty years ago, when I was in college, I accessed my school’s alumni directory via a book in the campus library. Ten years ago, I could access my school’s alumni, and millions of other people for that matter via a message request on LinkedIn. Today, if I need a quick professional question answered, I can post it in a Slack group or Tweet something out and get a response in minutes. Even LinkedIn is a social network these days—far better than anything my school can offer me.

Again, if you want to argue that by being at Harvard or Stanford the quality if the network is better and that kind of connection is valuable—sure, go ahead.

For the 90% of other private schools out there, it’s really hard to make the network argument over the kind of professional connections OnDeck is building for its customers.

Finally, there’s the credential.

Again, same deal. If want to make the case that people are predisposed to hire or fund Harvard, Stanford, Yale or MIT grads, have at it.

I’m not going to die on that hill—but I’ll argue that the foot in the door is no guarantee of success. (Says the Fordham grad who got rejected from a Stanford MBA currently running a venture capital fund.)

But when I’m taking pitches, I really don’t care if someone went to Vanderbilt, Clemson, or CUNY to be honest.

And when I’m speaking in front of a group of OnDeck fellows, I’m not asking what colleges they went to or even if they went to college.

OnDeck is on its way to decoupling network and real-world professional knowledge from the expensive degree—allowing people to get the commoditized aspects of education—the actual degree itself, the basic learning, skills training—on the cheap and lever up with their network. In fact, I would even argue that for a graduate of a top tier program, you’re also better off participating in their offering as it saves you time of the house to house approach to network building on your own—and time is money.

If any school is out there offering professional or advanced degrees based on the strength of my network and the people I’m bringing in to my classroom, and some amorphous street cred branding, I’d be taking a serious look at what OnDeck and others are doing before I get my lunch eaten.