The Entrepreneur Pulling the Curtain Back on College Costs
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
When college costs as much as a house, shouldn’t you know the return on your investment?
By Poornima Apte
It is difficult not to read too much into an etching of a steamer trunk that hangs in Nick Ducoff’s loft apartment in downtown Boston. This work of art, one of many that he and his wife have acquired over the years, is an arresting meditation on exploration and opacity, and it prompts the mind to wonder — exactly what Ducoff, philosopher and entrepreneur, loves to do.
Just as important, the framed works of art, along with the antiquarian books he collects (a mid-16th-century Descartes is his favorite), indulge his appreciation for tangible objects — a bit surprising given that Ducoff has built most of his career on digital technologies.
In his latest avatar, the 37-year-old is co-founder and CEO of Edmit, an online platform that delivers personalized, data-driven U.S. college investment advice. Since launching in 2017, with the help of mission-aligned investors including Bessemer and Rethink Education, Edmit has helped thousands of families with college-bound children save more than $5,000 on average in additional financial and merit awards. The key driver here is that Edmit treats college like an investment, much like buying a home or saving for retirement. Users pay an annual fee of $100 to access the Edmit portal, and the site gathers a slew of information specific to each student — academic merit, family finances, planned major, campus expenses and more — and then factors in return on the college investment by calculating potential earnings over 14 years (or when most college grads will turn 35).
Everyone comes into higher education with two questions that are frighteningly hard to answer: ‘How much is this going to cost?’ and ‘What’s going to happen to me when I graduate?’
Such data-driven analysis gives students a better idea of true value when selecting a school — as well as leverage when negotiating financial aid, Ducoff says. “Colleges are facing a lot of competition and really working hard to recruit students,” he says, which means they’re willing to hear from prospective students about the financial aid packages that might work best for them.
Ducoff knows how the sausage is made. For years, he was founding vice president for New Ventures at Northeastern University in Boston. While there he started Level Education at Northeastern, which was the first university-run tech boot camp. The goal was to look for ways to extend higher education to more people by cutting costs. The solution? Pack more into shorter periods of time. The two-month boot camps, which certify graduates in data analytics, the internet of things and other cutting-edge technologies, allow the school to deliver valuable skills for less than $10,000.
Edmit, Ducoff says, was built on the insights he culled from Northeastern. “I realized that everyone comes into higher education with two questions that are frighteningly hard to answer: ‘How much is this going to cost?’ and ‘What’s going to happen to me when I graduate?’” These may be very basic questions, but “everyone has them, and very few universities can answer them.”
Ducoff, who grew up in a suburb of Houston with one younger sibling, enjoyed a straightforward path to higher ed. He attended Emory University, which he credits for developing his varied interests in logic, art history and philosophy. Then, with two generations of lawyers in the family (his dad and grandfather), he chose to attend law school, even though he knew he wanted to be an entrepreneur. Ducoff started his first internet company during law school and eventually became a venture capital attorney. In 2010, he launched his own venture-backed company, Infochimps, which was later acquired by CSC.
Daniel Jacobson, vice president of engineering at Netflix, met Ducoff at a D.C. tech conference, and the two hit it off so well that Jacobson decided to join Infochimps’ advisory board; today he and Ducoff continue to enjoy an informal mentorship, regularly trading ideas. Ducoff’s greatest strength, Jacobson says, is his self-awareness: He’s not much of a tech geek and knows his weakness, so he surrounds himself with the best technical minds. Ducoff’s career moves, including his latest with Edmit, Jacobson says, are born out of a courage to build out a niche that hasn’t been explored yet.
It certainly takes courage to launch a new company, but David Charlow, co-founder of AccessApplied.com, a college affordability company, worries that Edmit doesn’t go far enough. Charlow is not sure the Edmit algorithm is entirely accurate and suggests it might be better for students to check out a school’s net price calculator to get a clear picture of the financials involved. “While net price calculators are a useful first step, they do not allow seamless comparison shopping between colleges,” Ducoff responds. “Given the variability between calculators’ formulas, what they include and their precision, comparisons of two different colleges’ costs may be apples to oranges.”
Ducoff has made it his mission to make the college financial aid process easier by serving as a gatekeeper for information, but is he not complicit in failing to address the problem at its source? With more than 2,000 families using its service, what about the many students who might not have access to Edmit’s counseling services because they don’t even know about them? Ducoff is aware of these obstacles and has created an access counsel board that works with Edmit on special initiatives. These might include reaching out to nonprofits like Bottom Line, which supports low-income and first-generation students through the college process, to expand access for all.
Transparency in the college process is an ongoing challenge, Ducoff admits, and he’s eager to see legislation that will make the landscape less confusing and intimidating. “The authorization of the Higher Education Act is underway,” he says. “The jury is out on what will be included in that, but there’s a lot of momentum toward using legislation to require colleges to be more transparent.”
It’s as if he’s trying to throw open that steamer trunk in the etching, and invite everyone to peer inside.
Three Questions for Nick Ducoff
What’s one thing you would like to go back to school to study?
A Ph.D. in philosophy, studying digital ethics.
What’s your favorite morning ritual?
Making French press with a good single-origin coffee.
Who’s your favorite philosopher and why?
Michel de Montaigne. The French philosopher asked “Que sais-je?” or “What do I know?” which he determined was very little. I’m naturally very confident, and studying Montaigne has helped me be more humble.
- Poornima Apte, OZY Author Contact Poornima Apte