Helping students cross the finish line


I had retired after 18 years as the president of the University of Rhode Island when I discovered College Unbound (CU). While new to me, the college had been open for nearly a decade, a child of Big Picture Learning. BPL has been creating radically different high schools across America and internationally, including the MET High School here in Providence. Dr. Dennis Littky, the co-founder of Big Picture Learning, wanted to take the core principles of those high schools and bring them to a new kind of college. He asked me to become a member of the governing board of College Unbound and, ultimately, I became its chair.

I learned that College Unbound had become a program for adult learners using ideas from Big Picture but adapted for people who once tried college but failed to complete a degree. As a group, these students were now in their 30s or 40s, had families, and often were stuck in low-paying jobs. Some were unemployed, some had been to prison. College completion and all that goes with a college diploma was a dream deferred. And yet there was an ember burning low that College Unbound could fan into a flame.

College Unbound was created to serve this population of dropouts, more than 110,000 of them in Rhode Island alone. In brief, it became a project-based curriculum that allowed students to work full time and yet go to college full time as well. Its curriculum embraced who these students were and what they needed to succeed. Classes were organized as cohorts, groups of fifteen or fewer students, who bonded and became support groups.

This unique college offered a Bachelor of Arts with a single major: Organizational Leadership and Change. That program could be individualized for each student, but focused on their comprehensive project, for most of them a part of their work. As they learned about leadership and change, the project not only increased their understanding of the dynamics of their job, but it also improved the work each did for their employer. For those unemployed, CU created internships where a similar project could be completed. Courses students took along the way gave them insight into their work environment as a microcosm of the broader world around them.

In 2015 the state of Rhode Island authorized College Unbound to give degrees. The next step was to get accredited. A veteran in the world of accreditation, I stepped down from my role as board chair and joined the staff to help guide CU to candidacy status, a critical and necessary step toward getting full accreditation. The New England Council on Higher Education (NICHE) granted us that status this past September, a moment we are celebrating. Our board, our faculty, our staff and our students are now getting to see President Littkys grand experiment succeeding and serving so many people in communities struggling to find the American dream. College Unbound is an innovative, degree-granting college for adults who have faced barriers to completing their bachelor's degree and is located at 325 Public St., Providence. For information call 401.752-2640. Robert L. Carothers is executive vice president of College Unbound.


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