A Different Approach
Over the past decade hundreds of adults - some who had given up their dream of ever graduating from college - have been taking a different approach to earning a bachelor’s degree. College Unbound, headquartered in Providence, is taking college to low-income and minority students: offering flexible schedules, favorable tuition rates, a tailored curriculum and locations at various parts of Rhode Island to go to class. This month Jim Hummel finds that the educational world is paying attention.
At the end of the work day the students gather - some in a second floor classroom in South Providence, others in a conference room at the United Way headquarters on Valley Street. And this group - assembled from various parts of the East Bay - at a high school building in Newport.
While each has a different story about getting here, all have a similar goal: to get the college degree they had trouble achieving earlier in their lives.
Welcome to College Unbound, which is blazing a trail in the world of higher education.
Littky: “College. Colleges do not do as well as we think they do for certain populations.”
Dennis Littky co-founded College Unbound in 2009 with Adam Bush. Littky, who had helped start The Met school in South Providence in the 1990s, set his sights on higher education more than a decade ago.
Littky: “Low income populations, students who go to college, don’t do very well. And when you look at the data on how many people end up leaving college, who start college, it’s such a high percent, it’s in the 80 percent if you’re low income, that’s not the student’s problem, that must be something wrong with the college.”
Littky and Bush set out to create a nonprofit college from scratch, aimed at helping minorities and low-income students earn a bachelor’s degree.
Littky: “Colleges have to say: this is my student, they have certain skills here, not as good here, let me work with them. And we felt we could design a college that really made sense for all types of students and pays attention to their story, builds off them.”
Bush: “Ten years ago when we started, we were kind of the crazy ones on the block and no one thought higher ed was broken - we were shouting that it’s not working. And now everyone kind of recognizes higher ed is working for folks it was designed to work for. But there’s a large section of the population that higher ed is not clicking in the way it needs to.”
The educational world is paying attention.
In 2015, the Rhode Island Council on Postsecondary Education approved College Unbound as the state’s 13th degree-granting institution of higher education in the state. The core of its mission is to be an adult degree completion school and students are required to already have completed nine college credits to enroll.
College Unbound recently became a candidate for accreditation by the New England Commission of Higher Education. Littky says it’s a game changer that means its students will now be able to receive federal financial aid; 80 percent of the student population is already eligible for Pell Grants. Right now 90 percent of College Unbound’s $1.5 million annual budget comes from donations, grants and foundations.
Littky: “We got approved as the 13th college in the state of Rhode island - first one in 26 years, and people said that couldn’t be done; then went on for regional accreditation and people said that couldn’t be done.”
Bush says just the mechanics of navigating through entry to college can be daunting for many students.
Bush: “We want to start from scratch and say: Alright, the student, they need a one-stop shop to register for classes, to pay for classes, to think about financial aid, to think about advising, to decide together what they want to do and get out of college. That shouldn’t be piecing together through seven different offices. That should be sitting together with someone you know, that cares about you and figuring it out together.”
College Unbound makes use of school and office buildings that often go unused at the end of a normal work or academic day.
Littky: “It’s about use of buildings, most buildings close at 5 o’clock. You can use anywhere, you can use public libraries. Our whole idea is how do you use space where people are familiar with in the community to come to?”
And it is taking college to the prospective student like this class at the United Way headquarters. A handful of United Way employees pack up their desks at the end of the day, then walk to a conference room to take class.
Every class offers two essentials for older students out in the real world: food and childcare.
Bush: “There things that may stop someone from being an active and engaged learner whenever they’re trying to show up.
Hummel: “As simple as that, but maybe not simple. If you’re hungry or you can’t take care of your kids, right?”
Bush: “Exactly. Those are the easy interventions that we can from (the) get-go to make sure someone is able to be there and able to be present.”
College Unbound doesn’t follow a traditional academic schedule: the average completion time is two and a half years to get a degree.
Bush: “A lot of people have lives, so they don’t have time for college. We say college should be a part of your life. And so we have a curriculum that engages with all of the things you’re doing throughout life. And we compress it. We really don’t think about extended summer breaks. You’re committing to college, you’re trying to finish it as quick and down and dirty as you can, but through a theme and engagement and core commitment you have that drives that entire college experience.”
So who goes to College Unbound? The average age of its students is 38, nearly two-thirds are Black or Hispanic, 70 percent are female and 80 percent work full-time. More than 60 percent have an annual income between $25,000 and $45,000. The school’s results are impressive: an 80 percent graduation rate, 87 percent employed full-time after graduation and 20 percent who go to graduate school.
Joyce Aboutaan was born and raised in Lebanon and lived undocumented for years after her family came to the United States when she was a teenager. Aboutaan said she fell in with the wrong crowd and had a child at 17. That was followed by an abusive marriage and four failed attempts at college.
She heard about College Unbound because her son was attending The Met School. So she came to an open house, then scraped together $50 to apply.
Aboutaan: “Dennis (Littky) was actually speaking and he was talking about College Unbound and I remember the entire room going completely silent and all I could hear was his voice. Everything he was saying, I could see these barriers in my mind just coming down with a sledgehammer. He offered babysitting, he offered dinner, he offered one night a week, he offered for my family to be included in my education track. And that sold me then and there.”
Aboutaan’s goal is to eventually go to law school.
Ok: “Being a teenage mother and also being independent, it was just my son and I, it was really hard to balance working, a 9-5 with also trying to attend school.”
Rosie Ok took a break from going to Rhode Island College, but always wanted to get her degree. She says College Unbound was the perfect fit.
Ok: “We share a common goal, but what makes it different is the curriculum, the program the structure of it is individualized.”
Zuli Vidal was also a teen mother. She went to CCRI while juggling several job. Then she heard about an open house at College Unbound.
Vidal: “I came to the open house. Every single one of the excuses I had at the time, they had a solution for it. It really did live up to what they sold it for. Like I could bring my kids with me if I wanted to, they gave us dinner. It was one night a week in house and I had the support systems I needed.”
Littky has been watching educational trends for decades - and heard a lot of doubt when they launched in 2009.
Littky: “Everyone around me said, don’t start. It’s too hard. A lot of people didn’t understand why one would start because they thought colleges were fine. We knew they weren’t. To me, it’s very hard when you move into an institution, to make changes. Colleges are harder to make changes than even high schools. And so one of the ways to really get it what you want is to starting from scratch, hiring the people you want, developing the curriculum you want; it’s very hard, but very exciting to me. To me, starting things are the most exciting thing.”
Bush: “What’s the work you need to do, and how do you the build a team around that work? And do it from the student’s point of view. It’s not saying now we’re an institution and so we have to copy every institution. It’s saying: what’s a student experience through higher ed that we want to make sure we’re creating and empowering and collectively building.”
Littky: “There’s a battle now about colleges: are they preparing people for jobs, are they a liberal arts school? We think it can go together. Because you need the broader picture, the liberal arts, but you also have to have the skills to be effective out there.”
Bush: “College isn’t this thing that you step away from, to take classes in absence of this work and world that you’re connected to. It’s the thing that embeds you deeper and deeper into that world and so you’re able to advance in your career. And able to seek out the professional experiences you want. We’re looking to help people grow as citizens and as members of a community, not just accumulate knowledge to pass a test.
In Providence, Jim Hummel for The Rhode Island Spotlight.