Often times people who drop out of college do so not because the academics are too difficult, but because they are managing the rest of their lives at the same time and require more support than most institutions of higher education offer students. Childcare, work, documentation status, and the many “hoops” students have to jump through to get a college degree are often some of the biggest barriers.
The founders of College Unbound, an accredited college program, started out with the dream of creating a college experience that supports kids from low-income backgrounds to succeed; a program based on the principles of Big Picture Learning, where academics are connected to students’ passions and the real world of work and mentors. But they ended up discovering an adult population of learners driven to get a degree by life experiences, but scarred by attempts to navigate higher education.
“Several students have had deeply traumatic experiences with higher ed,” said Adam Bush, Provost of College Unbound. “They’ve been made to feel that they can’t succeed in higher ed. It’s not a safe space where they’re made to feel like a participant in their learning.”
That is certainly the case for Erroll Lomba who grew up in a family that valued college deeply. When he graduated high school in the 1990s his teachers told him he would probably struggle in college because they hadn’t prepared him well for the amount of writing that would be required of him. He spent the next several years bouncing between different colleges, in classes that were over his head, not sure how to ask for help, and struggling to pay for books and other expenses on a limited financial aid package.
Lomba continued to take college classes at institutions including Brown University, University of Rhode Island, and Rhode Island College over the next ten years, but said his “heart and focus” were somewhere else. Meanwhile, he’d accumulated debt by trying to struggle through while working and raising a family. He decided to focus on what he loved doing, working with youth, and spent twenty years doing that successfully. But when he negotiated for raises or asked for promotions his bosses always used his lack of a college degree to pay him less, despite years of experience and a track record of success.
“Hearing someone say that you’re not worthy, as indirectly as it is said, that’s really tough to overcome,” Lomba said. He knew he needed to get over his fear of writing and get a degree, but he was terrified of more failure in the traditional university setting. When he heard about College Unbound he was hopeful that school could be different.
“It’s been an awesome process and the way that the classes are structured is so different,” Lomba said. The cohort of 16 students meet once a week for three hours to discuss readings and how their individual projects connect to the theories they’re learning. Any time they meet in person the school provides childcare and food to make sure everyone can come. In between those meetings, students are working full time, but are also expected to complete between 20 and 30 hours of work at home. They document work experiences related to school, post writings and the readings, and upload everything to an online platform. There students are expected to engage with one another’s ideas by commenting and sharing relevant readings. Students also have a mentor, who checks in with them and helps them stay on track.
Lomba had taken courses at four different universities before College Unbound and feels he has finally found a style of learning that works for him. “The way these classes work and the way that we learn is by far superior to all of those because it’s all about these professors asking us great questions,” he said. Students are constantly filtering the readings through their own experiences of work and life, adding context and relevance to the learning experience. Each student applied with a project in mind related to their passions. Lomba is working on a media company he started several years ago that helps marginalized people and organizations serving them tell moving stories well.
“I think that because the learning is so much about what my project is, and that’s how I want to spend the rest of my life, I’m completely invested,” Lomba said. He hasn’t had the motivation problems he experienced with other college courses because everything he’s working on helps him in his real life. It’s a little like a business school student who enters with a company proposal in mind; every assignment meant as practice gets that student closer to a viable product. And College Unbound students are finding overlaps in their projects. Some in the group have independently started a WhatsApp group to continue conversations about school and work beyond the classroom.
COMPETENCY BASED LEARNING
Many adults returning to school have to start from square one. Any classes they took in previous attempts at university have expired and their work and life experiences don’t count towards formal academic credit. College Unbound is trying to upend that model by giving credit to students who can demonstrate they know something, regardless of how they learned about it. The program has been working with the nonprofit Council for Adult Experiential Learning (CAEL) to verify the learning experiences of its students through interviews.
“It’s kind of a proud moment for a lot of us,” said Joyce Aboutaan, a student with two children who never thought she’d make it back to school. “I think we spend a lot of time shaming ourselves and feeling like it’s not enough.” She said her interview with CAEL felt like an empowering reflection of all that her many jobs and her life as a mother and community member have taught her.
“I’m somebody who has spent tons of years interning and volunteering and not getting paid and now I’m having this opportunity to get credit,” said Lauren Roy, another College Unbound student. Roy attended The Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center (better known as The MET high school), so had already come to terms with a less traditional type of education.
When she was 16 Roy's home life became unstable and she needed to move out. She ended up living with a mentor she had met through her high school internship at a law office, a woman who is still one of her best friends and staunchest supporters. After high school Roy tried to work full time and go to community college full time, but she was miserable. She was doing fine in her classes, but she wasn’t interested in them. With any spare time she tried to pursue her real passion of working with victims of sexual assault through volunteer activities. College Unbound has allowed her to pursue a degree while doing the work she cares about.
Roy loves that her course work directly relates to her project -- creating a zine written by and for women who have experienced sexual trauma. She wants the zine to be a resource to teenagers in every child advocacy agency in Rhode Island.
“[College Unbound is] literally here to fit around my life and not make it feel so disjointed,” Roy said. “And that’s how regular college felt to me.” In a class called “Contextualizing Work” students were asked to create foundational documents for their projects that laid out the mission, vision, desires, needs and a timeline. Roy is a person with lots of energy and passion, but a tendency to skip from one idea to another. Her class assignments forced her to take deliberate steps forward to complete her project.
“This is the first time I’ve ever been in the process of actually completing a project,” Roy said. She’s excited by the leadership and organizational skills she has learned, including how to manage the group of women she’s working with to create the zine.
REFRAMING THE COLLEGE EXPERIENCE
While College Unbound is certainly untraditional and a departure from traditional higher education models, it’s also rigorous and has been designated an official degree-granting postsecondary option by the Rhode Island Council on Postsecondary Education. Before it gained that official recognition, the program operated through a partnership with Charter Oak State College, an online public college. Students received credit from Charter Oaks, but the program was completely designed by College Unbound. The program is intentionally designed to work with the complicated needs of adult learners, and part of that is intentionally making courses sound less formal, even though the expectations are still high.
“The courses are named goofy things for a reason,” Bush said. He doesn’t want them to sound like scary college classes that these students already have too much experience failing. Instead classes are called things like “Introduction to Organizational Leadership and Change,” “Writing for Change,” “Contextualizing Work,” or “Reframing Failure.” The courses are taught by professors, and are planned with same rigor as other college courses. “Those first four classes created critical discussions for students to build the habits to succeed,” Bush said.
Some required readings from “Reframing Failure” include The Queer Art of Failure and Against Interpretation and Other Essays among others. Students are also expected to find, write about and share relevant readings connected to their individual topics.
“It turns out to be way more personalized than any other college class,” said Dennis Littky, the program’s founder. Littky doesn’t believe the current university system serves many students well. Too many low-income and non-white students drop out because the environment doesn’t support their needs.
“Everyone says students must be college ready. I say, colleges must be student ready,” Littky said. And, while College Unbound is still a small program, it’s helping to prove that when the right supports are present and students have a strong learning community based around things they are passionate about even the most marginalized succeed.
“They don’t want to see us fail,” said Zuli Vidal, a College Unbound student who tried hard to get a higher education even after becoming a teen mom, but who ultimately quit to support her kids. “They want to see us succeed. And they’re willing to really sit with us and figure it out.”
While some of the College Unbound program is online, it’s very different from the self-paced, hands off model of more well known e-learning programs. Littky doesn’t see those online learning as a solution for marginalized students.
“I think it’s horrible and the poorer you are the more horrible it is,” Littky said. “People say online is flexible and that’s what’s good about it. But it’s only flexible in two areas: time and speed.” The style of teaching and the material is the same. In his view, it’s hard enough for students to motivate themselves to learn something they aren’t interested in when there’s a living, breathing professor to disappoint, and much harder to push through the material on their own.
But, he does understand that for people with busy lives meeting in person three times a week is a hardship. That’s why the online portion of the College Unbound work is more of a digital portfolio than a content delivery system. Students will retain access to the materials on their personal sites long after the course ends or they graduate. It’s a repository of their work, documentation of their learning on the job or outside of class, and a community for collaboration.
“You can even forget it’s online in some ways,” Littky said. “We’re using online for convenience and to share.” Students seem to like the online portion for exactly that reason. They have personalized their digital portfolios, like a personal webpage or a Facebook profile, and can regularly share ideas about one another’s projects.
Lauren Roy believes College Unbound will soon catch on for many more people. She looks around the room at the cohort of people she’s learning with and is amazed at how diverse their experiences of life and education have been, and yet they all needed a program like College Unbound. “I always say that College Unbound is radical because it gives the most marginalized people access to a degree,” Roy said. She believes her own education has been enriched because of learning alongside those with very different experiences than her own.
Roy has wanted to be a lawyer since high school and she still wants that, but she needed an undergraduate degree to get there. She achieved at a high level in traditional college, but hated it. Now, she knows college doesn’t have to be something boring she forces herself to get through for the piece of paper at the end.