College Unbound

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Founded 2009. Target: first-generation traditionally-aged college students

College Unbound (CU), an initiative of Big Picture Learning, was the natural next step for an organization at the forefront of K-12 education innovation for over 18 years. Founded in the Fall of 2009 with planning grants from the Lumina Foundation, the Nellie Mae Foundation, and Big Picture Learning, College Unbound was created to address the needs of first generation low-income college students.


The program began with 10 traditional age college students sharing living and study space in a three-story home in Providence, RI. Students shared chores and ideas, while participating in 20 hours per week internships and engaging in curriculum related to their work.


While enrolled at CU, students were simultaneously enrolled at the regionally accredited School of Continuing Studies at Roger Williams University, a private nonprofit university. We developed the curriculum and design; RWU awarded the degrees. This original cohort graduated in 2012 with degrees from both.

Adult Learners were drawn to CU

As the original cohort of traditional-age students progressed, older adults knocked on our doors. Mid-way through year one, two adult women joined the program and by spring another five adult learners signed up for year two.


The addition of adult learners changed the culture of the program. They were motivated and focused on the learning. They tapped into their diverse life experiences and increased the level of discussion for all our students. Each had a full-time job, which enriched the workplace learning opportunities and inspired authentic projects of immediate use in the world.


These adult learners had all started college degree programs at one point, but were unable to finish due to competing demands on their time (e.g. family responsibilities, full-time jobs). They had tried to go back (some of them several times) but were unable to find a program that fit their needs.


At the end of year two, College Unbound posted a Facebook invitation to adult learners with some college credit, but no degree. 75 adults showed up the next night. 25 enrolled for the fall. It seemed we had found our niche. 20 of this group graduated by Spring 2013 (three within nine months of joining CU).

Cohort Power: Distance learning in New Orleans, Fall 2011

Having heard of the program, in Fall 2010, the Ashé Cultural Arts Center in New Orleans, LA, worked with CU staff to structure a program that would move a cohort of New Orleans-based cultural workers towards a bachelor’s degree.

The Ashé Cultural Arts Center became CU’s first affinity cohort of students. These New Orleans community leaders used our curriculum model and supported each other as they undertook CU- designed courses for degrees in Community and Cultural Development. Increasingly, arts and cultural leaders are expected to hold college degrees—as well as the skills and knowledge this degree is meant to represent. Although the Ashé Unbound students are effective, talented professionals who have completed multiple courses at various institutions, none had finished a full higher education degree.


Ashé Unbound opened with a single course in 2011 and as a total program Winter 2012. Students took advantage of College Unbound @ RWU prior learning experience policies to transfer credits, document experiences such as military training, and take CLEP exams. Twelve Ashe Unbound students graduated Spring 2013 with a College Unbound degree, while six of them received degrees from RWU as well.


The program continues today, benefiting both the working professionals it enrolls and the Ashé Cultural Arts Center, itself, by adding to the organization’s current and future capacity.


New Partner: Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), Fall 2011

College Unbound was approached to create an on- campus degree pathway for another private nonprofit university Fall 2011. SNHU president Paul LeBlanc announced the new program, saying: “College Unbound is our new initiative designed to reach out to students who want a different learning model, who want to save money, and who still want a SNHU campus experience. By reversing the relationship of field-based learning and the work of the classroom, with the latter now serving the former, we have a breakthrough program for every student who ever chafed at sitting in a classroom for hours and yearned for hands- on learning.”


The three-year, intensive, year-round program continues today on the SNHU campus. It unites personal motivation and discipline with progressive course work and real-world learning. 5 College Unbound students received Bachelor of Arts degrees from SNHU May 2014.


Changing the Target: Adult learners, Fall 2012

Developing a campus for 18 – 21 year olds was never the mission of College Unbound. Campuses exist for those who want the on-campus college experience. College Unbound refocused in Fall 2012, targeting adult learners with some college credit but no degree, and continued to refine the model. Many of these students simultaneously enrolled at RWU.


The successful Ashé cohort experience led to the development of other affinity groups. A College Unbound cohort of early childhood workers sprang from a relationship with Ready 2 Learn, a Providence organization committed to improving early childhood education for low-income families. Another cohort of workers from the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence also developed. Students in these cohorts encouraged good work in each other. 


The refocusing also allowed us to name our Individual, Organization, and Community Studies major, and to define the 21st century skills that had been the foundation of College Unbound student learning. The Big 10 was born—a collection of intellectual, practical, and social skills that employers and life demands—and became the lens through which all student learning experiences are planned, assessed, and credited. With adult learners, our curriculum model was refined. The key elements now became:


  • One Student at a Time - Students begin with their passions and areas of interest, as well as their current abilities, skills, and struggles. Each student develops a personal learning plan to address these needs.
  • Workplace Learning – Students build skills and knowledge in their fields of interest through self- initiated projects either in their current workplace or at arranged internships.
  • Mentoring – Rather than a single professor per course, students work with a professional mentor at the work site, an academic advisor, field experts, and a supportive group of peers.
  • Shared Assessment - Students maintain online portfolios of their work, and twice per semester students demonstrate knowledge and skills through public analysis of their work.

High Tech/ High Touch Learning with On-the-Ground Support, 2013 - 2014 

In Fall 2013, College Unbound extended its reach with a new partner, Charter Oak State College in Connecticut. Charter Oak State College is an online public college that has been serving adult learners well for over 40 years. This partnership provides College Unbound with the opportunity to strengthen its online presence and provide students with another entry point to a bachelor of arts degree. As CU grows, it is essential that we can replicate the CU experience wherever the cohort meets. Technology makes that possible.


College Unbound recognizes the power of online learning and understands the needs of the adult learner. Translating the College Unbound model in the online environment makes good sense.


Taking our high touch model into the high-tech environment, we are working to stay true to the following principles:


  • Personalization goes beyond allowing the student to set the pace in their progress through the same curriculum. It means allowing them to direct both curriculum and pacing.
  • Technology must be used to do more than deliver content; it provides tools to discover, create, use, assess, discuss, manipulate and reshape content.
  • Technology is also a tool to connect students with each other and with all the members of their support network.
  • Online learning works well when students are supported by active Personal Learning Networks and we weekly on-the-ground support.


When assessment is shared between professors, academic advisors, workplace mentors, field experts, and peers, the learning is rigorous, relevant, and ongoing.


In June of 2014, eight more College Unbound students graduated, six receiving degrees from both College Unbound and Charter Oak State College. Another eight will graduate Spring 2015.  

College Unbound has been working with Fidelis, Peer 2 Peer University, and the CN to explore the development of a new online platform supportive of a personalized, interest-based, project-driven curriculum.

College Unbound and the Connecticut Credit Assessment Program (CCAP), 2013 - 2014

College Unbound has 12 courses that have been reviewed and approved by the Connecticut Credit Assessment Program. This means that College Unbound instructors may offer these courses anywhere, anytime, and submit transcripts to Charter Oak State College. For a small Credit Registry fee, students may have those credits recognized on an official Charter Oak State College transcript.


Contributing to College Unbound’s mission of honoring learning happening throughout the state of Rhode Island, College Unbound will take an active role in helping organizations and business move through the Connecticut Credit Assessment Program (CCAP). This process allows businesses to submit for evaluation the curriculum for existing professional development training. If approved, students and employees may receive college credit for workshops, training, and other real-world learning experiences.

College Unbound & the Lumina Foundation, 2013 - 2014

Lumina’s Vice President of Communications and Innovation, Dr. Kiko Suarez, noted that, “College Unbound has a track record of helping returning adults complete a bachelor’s degree while working in real life projects. The CU team have developed an innovative model that could well represent the future for adult learners.”


College Unbound (an initiative of Big Picture Learning) and the Lumina Foundation posted a $10,000 international challenge on May 31, 2014 looking for ideas to scale and sustain the College Unbound adult learning model.


The challenge was addressed by 310 solvers from around the world in 44 submissions! Judges have selected first, second, and third place submissions and announced winners October 2014. In addition to the College Unbound team, judges included:


  • Dr. David Scobey - Executive Dean, The New School for Public Engagement
  • Dr. James Honan - Senior Associate Director of Advanced Leadership, Harvard Graduate School of Education 
  • Dr. Eileen McGowan - Lecturer - Education Leadership, Harvard Graduate School of Education
  • Anya Kamenetz - Contributing Writer at Fast Company Magazine, Author of DIY U, Edupunks Guide


The Lumina Foundation granted $300,000 in 2014 to aid College Unbound with business planning and strategizing for scale.


Partnership with Charter Oak continues, 2014 - 2015

College Unbound's partnership with Charter Oak State College continued to grow over the course of the 2014-2015 academic year. College Unbound created a concentration in Organizational and Community Studies which formalized the instruction of courses like Reframing Failure, Contextualizing Work, and Community Assessment into the CU student experience. In May 2015, over 200 people showed to witness 14 of their colleagues walk in the College Unbound graduation ceremony. During the ceremony College Unbound officially established its Alumni Association and presented its first ever College Unbound Alumni Award. 

Initiatives mean College Unbound expansion, 2014 - 2015

Native American Initiative


CU student, Bella Noka of the Narragansett Tribe in Rhode Island, introduced us to Daryl Waldron, Executive Director of the Rhode Island Indian Council. This relationship was the catalyst for a plan to partner with the Rhode Island Indian Council to promote College Unbound as an option for Native Americans. In November 2014, CU attended a National Tribal Council gathering in Kentucky and a 4-day training for 26 tribes and over 300 leaders nationwide. CU has since held retreats with the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, Mohegan tribe, Pequot tribe, and has information sessions scheduled with six other tribal representatives. The development plan involves working directly with councils and tribes throughout the US to identify students and community leaders who will be academic advisors, guiding students throughout their college experience, connecting them with community resources, mentors, and internship or apprentice opportunities.


The first pilot launched January 2015 with the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe in Mashpee, MA. Currently CU has eight students enrolled in the program with three more enrolling in the fall. By fall 2015, CU expects to be working with over 30 members of Native American Indian Councils across five states through a pilot CU program run through TheCN learning management system.


Cohorts in & outside prison


Since the fall of 2015, College Unbound has been working with the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated from the Rhode Island Department of Corrections and has achieved significant results. Inside the prison, our students work through a 24-credit curriculum of College Unbound coursework. Upon completion of all 24 credits inside, a ceremony is held and students are awarded a certificate of completion. Incarcerated alumni remain connected to the program by becoming alumni mentors, recruiters and/or teaching assistants. If students are released while in the program, they can transfer their credits to College Unbound and continue on the pathway towards degree completion. Recently released students are transitioned into an outside cohort of students – all of whom were formerly incarcerated and are working towards their Bachelor’s degree.  Students in the outside cohort receive more intensive support to help ease their transition back into society and ensure their personal and professional success.


CU Receives State Authorization, May 2015

In a historic and 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. It was standing room only as College Unbound supporters flooded the boardroom to hear the final verdict.


The crowd cheered when council member John J. Smith spoke of College Unbound’s ability to serve underrepresented, low-income adult learners, saying, “This particular program appears to give them hope, so they are able to not only feel pride in themselves and in their work, but have an opportunity to grow, expand, and to find their pathway.”


Rhode Island Commissioner of Postsecondary Education Dr. Jim Purcell also praised the college, saying, “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.” Dr. Purcell continued, saying, “These types of adult degree completion programs are transformative not just for the individuals and their families, but also for our community and workforce.”


State authorization was the first necessary step. College Unbound’s accreditation application with the New England Associate of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) is under review and we expect acceptance by May of 2017. Once accredited CU will offer a single bachelor’s degree program in Organizational Leadership and Change.


Students with a degree in Organizational Leadership and Change are set up for success in diverse business units, sectors, and industries. The degree is broad enough to encompass jobs in business, management, and community and social services and focused enough to be recognizable by employers.