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

By Tracy Money, Dennis Littky and Adam Bush

In a historic unanimous vote on May 20, 2015, the Rhode Island Council on Postsecondary Education welcomed College Unbound as a degree-granting postsecondary option in the state, designed to serve the more than 110,000 Rhode Island adults who began but did not complete bachelor’s degrees.

The college is the adult-learning initiative of Big Picture Learning, a nonprofit organization dedicated to a fundamental redesign of education in the U.S. College Unbound has broken with tradition, painting a new picture of college. It is “unbound” from conventional structures, designed specifically to meet the needs of the underserved adult learner in unique ways.

College Unbound has been offering college curriculum through affiliations with accredited institutions since 2009, and is currently partnering with Charter Oak State College in Connecticut. This partnership will continue as we pursue accreditation through the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.

College Unbound has filled a gap for returning adult learners. From the beginning, we heard from students like Kelley Duffy who told us: “I looked into other options, such as transferring somewhere else, but, only 90 of my 120 plus credits could transfer. I would have to do 30 more wherever I went. Since, I am a full-time working mother, it would take me a few years to complete due to scheduling.” With College Unbound support, Duffy did complete her bachelor’s degree while working full-time and enrolling as a full-time student. This was possible because College Unbound only requires students to be out one evening per week, in addition to a weekly meeting with an academic advisor, and supports students in submitting portfolios to earn credit for prior learning experience.

Students like College Unbound’s Chachi Carvalho wanted to return to college for years, but because they owed money at other colleges who wouldn’t release transcripts until the debt was paid, they remained stuck—unable to advance in their careers without a degree, unable to pay off the debt that would allow them to move forward. With support, Carvalho was able to move forward and graduated on May 30, saying, “College Unbound provided me with a platform to redefine myself as a man, a father, a musician and as an educator.”

College Unbound provides more than a single intervention aimed at accommodating adults; it combines several interventions in a carefully designed program that has been tested and proven successful with underrepresented, low-income, returning adult learners over the last six years. Key features are:

  • Students are full-time workers/full-time students, speeding progress toward the degree.
  • Personal Learning Plans (PLP) are developed and maintained in weekly meetings with an academic advisor. Advisors hold a minimum of a bachelor’s degree and have experience with project management. Some are adjunct professors, some are leaders in other organizations.
  • PLPs drive an interest-based/project-driven/workplace and community enhanced curriculum.
  • The student-designed action research project guides the learning throughout the entire degree program.
  • Instruction and resources are provided in online courses combined with on-ground application and support.
  • Students meet once per week with a learning cohort and build a working Personal Learning Network committed to their success, which includes an academic advisor, professional mentor, field experts (including instructors), and peers.
  • The development of Lifelong Learning Competencies is at the core of every project and course, and growth in those competencies is assessed against rubrics every term through student artifacts and demonstrations.
  • Student work is open to public analysis every eight weeks in learning exhibitions at which peers, professional mentors, academic advisors, professors, and community members provide verbal and written feedback.

In a nutshell, College Unbound facilitates a real-life curriculum built around projects which students design in connection to their work and interests in an online environment. The development of Lifelong Learning Competencies and field-specific knowledge and skills are interwoven through a combination of courses, field studies in the student’s own workplace and community, and in-depth work on projects with meaningful impact. Projects range from one student developing a real estate agency to focus on community development and revitalization to a group of students involved in early-childhood education creating a Living Wage campaign for early-childhood education workers.

The College Unbound Lifelong Learning Competencies are the skills identified as essential by employers and those necessary for success in life. College Unbound students become skilled at:

  • Advocacy for self and others
  • Accountability
  • Collaboration
  • Communication
  • Creativity
  • Critical Thinking
  • Integrated and applied learning
  • Problem posing and solving
  • Reflection
  • Resilience

Each real-world project requires research, interviewing and building relationships with content-experts and testing theories and ideas in ways that are meaningful to the student and beneficial to the community and organization. Online instructors facilitate learning and application of necessary content knowledge and skills. Weekly one-on-one meetings with the student’s academic advisor provide project coaching, tutoring, and one-on-one encouragement.

College Unbound in action

College Unbound graduate James Monteiro’s work at the Institute for the Study & Practice of Nonviolence led to his commitment to opening a youth community center. Monteiro has said that, “It is the fundamental obligation of any society to prepare its adolescents and young adults to lead productive and prosperous lives as adults.” This belief moved him to act.

Making his dream a reality required that Monteiro use the College Unbound program to gain skills and knowledge in: grantwriting, community development, housing, youth studies, economics and nonprofit management This led to a bachelor’s degree in Individualized Studies with an emphasis on Community Development and the founding of his own nonprofit organization, Billy Taylor House, whose mission is to promote youth engagement for the well-being of the community as a whole. Monteiro now works for College Unbound as an academic advisor and heads its Prison Bridge Program, working with the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated to complete degrees.

Disrupting higher education

Fully 31 million adults in this country began degree programs in the last 20 years, but did not finish, according to new data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, Adult learners looking to finish degrees can research a wide variety of options—four-year, two-year, public, private, online and conventional higher education institutions.

Three things become clear in this kind of research: 1) higher education in the U.S. was designed for the traditional young adult, age 18–24 who attends school full-time, and works part-time or not at all while attending school; 2) instructional practice is still mostly information delivery and the content delivered hasn’t changed much; and 3) the returning nontraditional student doesn’t fare well in this environment; in fact, according to a 2014 study by the American Council on Education, only 34% of non-first time students complete their degree.

Rhode Island is opening doors for the underserved adult learner, recognizing that the clock, the dollar, and tolerance levels for irrelevant curriculum only stretch so far. Rhode Island Commissioner of Postsecondary Education Jim Purcell said it this way: “Education is all about bringing forth the capacity that exists within people, and College Unbound offers people the opportunity to expand their minds, finish their degrees, and build better lives. … These types of adult degree-completion programs are transformative not just for the individuals and their families, but also for our community and workforce.”


College Unbound by the Numbers

Male 22%
Female 78%
Under 25 2%
25-35 40%
36-45 29%
Over 45 29%
African American 40%
Hispanic 22%
Caucasian/White 31%
Asian 2%
American Indian 4%
Alaska Native 0%
Other 1%
Pell Eligibility  73%
Graduation Rate


Tracy Money is vice president of strategy and planning at College Unbound. Dennis Littky is a founder of The Met School, Big Picture Learning and College Unbound, where he is president. Adam Bush is provost and founding director of curriculum at College Unbound.



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