Reaching the 39 Million: Rethinking What It Means to Be a College for Adults

By Adam Bush

We all received the “good” news recently that students are gradually returning to college, slowing the loss of 1 million students in postsecondary classrooms over the past two years to a trickle. But just as Covid has exposed many of the cracks in our social framework, so too has it laid bare what an outspoken few have known for years: Higher education isn’t working. Or, to speak more plainly, it is working—to maintain the perception of “meritocracy” that cements hierarchies based on race and inherited wealth.

Meanwhile, in just two years, the number of adults with some college but no degree has spiked by 9%, growing to 39 million.

The problem should not be framed, “How can we bring these folks back to college?” but instead, “How can we transform higher education to meet their needs—and what might that transformation mean for all learners seeking a college degree?”

College Unbound (CU), based in Providence, R.I., is designed for adults looking to advance in their current careers, move into new vocations or spark change that improves the quality of life for themselves and others. In 2020, we were accredited by the New England Commission of Higher Education. During the pandemic, CU more than doubled our enrollment, and became one of two designated Hispanic Serving Institutions in Rhode Island. Our retention rate for fall 2021 students was 90%.

Over the past 13 years, we have designed a college from the ground up, informed by the experiences of our adult learners. Students came to us, and were recruited by us, from moments of frustration in their lives—of being kept from promotions, of financial hurt from accumulating debt and from being misunderstood as lacking agency, intellect and leadership capacity because they did not possess a bachelor’s degree. Students also came to us with a wealth of professional and personal experience and a wealth of learning from both their failures and successes.

While the average age of CU students is 36, we believe that colleges serving students of all ages should think about everyone returning to the classroom as adult learners. And instead of just adding academic, financial and social support, we urge colleges to rethink how they see their learners. Here are a few ways to do so:

Honor your students’ interests. College Unbound’s curriculum, a single major in Organizational Leadership and Change, is built around student projects that connect to professional development and personal growth. Students meet weekly in professional or place-based cohorts to advance their scholarship, building community, engagement and momentum for learning. In a 2021 survey of our alumni that received a 100% response rate, 87% report they have continued to work on their project after graduation. Notably, 81% of CU alumni reported that the project has had a demonstrable impact in their lives, workplaces, organizations, communities or for others beyond CU.

Credit their skills. Students in their first semester are required to take a course called Learning from Experience, which introduces them to what we call The Big 10: leadership and change competencies that provide a foundation for CU’s single major of Organizational Leadership and Change. These competencies, which include Problem Solving, Intercultural Engagement, and Communication, align closely with the skills that employers value most. The Big 10 also form CU’s process for obtaining credit for prior learning (CPL). This process is detailed on our website at Building Your Big 10 Leadership & Change Portfolio. While many colleges offer CPL, only 11% of adult students earn credit for prior learning. We are unique in that 100% of our students complete at least 10 credits via prior learning, because the Big 10 are graduation requirements. By requiring Learning from Experience in the first year, CU graduates earn an average of 21 CPL credits, accelerating their time to completion by more than three semesters.

Meet students where they are already learning. CU is exploring ways in which college can be accessed through trusted providers of lifelong learning. In partnership with Peer 2 Peer University (P2PU), CU offers free learning circles with an option for college credit, initially at the Providence Public Library and Providence Community Library. Participants who attend learning circles work and learn together at their local community library in a “study group” atmosphere, led by a facilitator. Course materials come from online course providers, universities, and nonprofit organizations from around the world—meaning the courses are both free to take and facilitate.

P2PU and CU now offer these learning circles nationwide through open trainings that will reach an additional 100+ library staff across the country. This project seeks to transform the learning that happens in libraries into a viable degree-completion pathway for radically increasing earnings, uplifting families and transforming communities. Locally, we plan to launch a cohort of BA completers at the Providence Community Library this spring. Long term, we hope this initiative can lead to a global infrastructure that enables public library staff to serve their patrons close to home by offering high-quality credit-bearing training and microcredentialing at low cost in in-demand topics.

The 39 million adults with some college, but no degree, deserve better opportunities than what our current system has to offer. It has been clear for far too long that higher education needs a radical shift in its approach to truly create the “student-centered” learning environment that so many institutions hope to foster. We must meet our students where they are, recognizing that at any age, they will bring an array of interests and prior learning—which should be lifted up, appreciated and credited. We at College Unbound will continue to push for these changes in these critical next few years.

The Covid pandemic has exposed and widened many of the cracks that have existed in higher education since its inception. But this time of recovery also represents an opportunity for all of us to rethink how we might seal up many of those cracks at their very foundation.

Adam Bush is provost and co-founder of College Unbound.


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To Knock Down Barriers for Returning Adult Learners, RI Tries Something New

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