Diversity and Democracy

Designing a High-Impact College for Returning Adult Students

The Student at the Center

College Unbound puts students at the center of their own educations. As Lauren Roy relates in this issue, “Within my cohort, students often say that we are literally living our projects and our courses.” Read more


High-impact educational practices (such as learning communities, community-based learning, and capstone projects) are often found at the innovative margins of colleges and universities. Even when these practices are an institutional priority, they often do not reach the students whom they most benefit: low-income students, students of color, and first-generation students (Kuh 2008). Many of these students are adult learners who are returning to college after having started their degrees years earlier. In the United States, thirty-seven million adults ages twenty-five to sixty-four have attended a college without ever earning a degree or credential (Merisotis 2013). These students need access to educational programs that have been intentionally designed to support their success.

What would it mean to create a college that was deliberately designed for minoritized, underserved, and underrepresented students, and that offered a curriculum consisting only of high-impact practices? What would be possible if we combined these practices with key innovations—competency-based education, credit hours that are separate from seat time, prior learning assessments, high-touch student-faculty interactions supported by technology, and pedagogies that prepare students for careers and nurture their civic agency—to create integrative programs designed with returning adult students in mind?

The result would be a new kind of college. This is what exists at College Unbound, Rhode Island’s newest postsecondary institution. Founded in 2009 and approved by the state in 2015, College Unbound has been recognized for its innovative approaches (Kamenetz 2010; 2015). The institution seeks to reframe higher education around a commitment to social justice in a diverse democracy: its mission is “to reinvent higher education for underrepresented returning adult learners, using a model that is individualized, interest-based, project-driven, workplace-enhanced, cohort-supportive, flexible, supportive, and affordable” (College Unbound 2017). Traditional models of higher education are failing many students, and College Unbound recognizes that making meaningful strides toward inclusive excellence requires significant—and unbound—change.

A Responsive Curriculum

College Unbound offers a single, but highly adaptable, degree program: a bachelor of arts in organizational leadership and change. Students develop strong intellectual and practical skills along with a sense of civic professionalism and social responsibility in a diverse democracy.

Students navigate College Unbound within cohorts—learning communities of ten to fifteen peers. The degree program is organized into semesters, each comprising six courses divided into two eight-week terms. Students enter College Unbound with different numbers of previously earned credits, but all take part in a shared first-semester experience consisting of Workplace and World Lab, Introduction to Organizational Leadership and Change, Writing for Change, Reframing Failure, and Contextualizing Work. Each student works with an advisor to create an individualized learning plan that aligns with the student’s goals and life experiences. Following the first term, students may complete their degrees while working full or part time, in accordance with their learning plans.

College Unbound treats the workplace as a learning asset, and Workplace and World Lab is a critical component of the curriculum. Students enroll in this course every term throughout their time in the program. The course prompts students to make connections between their curricular and workplace experiences through multi-semester projects that feed into their interests and goals while also benefiting the organizations in which they work or intern. The opportunity to integrate their coursework through a project they have designed empowers and challenges students, allowing them to identify and validate their strengths while developing their academic skills. (See Lauren Roy’s essay for a student’s perspective on the College Unbound experience.)

Pedagogy as Participatory Epistemology

College Unbound embraces the idea that high-impact learning happens in many spaces, and that faculty are not the only holders and creators of knowledge. Students are true partners in their learning: they engage in coassessment of their work, and their stories and histories actively shape the curriculum. For students, this model results in a learning environment where they can all be successful and where inclusive excellence is expected and realized. For faculty, the model offers an entry point to an exciting, collaborative endeavor that highlights the impact of student-centered teaching.  

In spring 2016, several of this article’s authors—Liya, Stephanie, Ebru, Jennifer (all doctoral students in the higher education program at the University of Massachusetts Boston) and John (a faculty member in the program)—cotaught a College Unbound course, Contextualizing Work. As described on the syllabus, the course “requires students to step out of their current role in their workplace, or in the development of their project, and apply research strategies using their immediate environment.” The course’s primary goal is to put qualitative research methods into practice by engaging students in integrated reflection on and exploration of the intersections among their identities, their projects, their places of work, and their social justice commitments.

From the beginning of the course, the faculty team engaged in a cyclical process of continuous reflection on our teaching and our students’ experiences. In collaboration with other College Unbound faculty, we met with students each Monday, debriefed as a faculty group each Wednesday, held virtual office hours each Thursday, collaborated over long conference calls each Sunday, and interacted with students using their online portfolios throughout the week. In short, by teaching students to “contextualize their work,” we were also contextualizing our own work—putting into practice an intentional, social justice–oriented teaching agenda in an environment that was at once more rigorous, flexible, focused, creative, and fulfilling than we had encountered in our previous teaching experiences.

Key Learning Outcomes

The College Unbound model focuses on generating ten learning outcomes, which we call “the Big Ten”: (1) advocacy for self and others, (2) accountability, (3) collaboration, (4) communication, (5) creativity, (6) critical thinking, (7) intercultural engagement, (8) problem solving, (9) reflection, and (10) resiliency. As students achieve these outcomes, they become empowered leaders who are able to deal with diversity, complexity, and change. Because their lives are integrated into their coursework, students continuously develop lifelong learning competencies, both inside and outside of the classroom. 

As civic actors in a democracy, students need an education that is not merely economically instrumental, but that also supports their civic agency. Such an education requires integrated experiences that allow students to flourish in their coursework and in their lives. College Unbound offers this type of education to returning adult students, with the goal of instilling greater justice and equity in the world.

For more information about College Unbound, visit www.collegeunbound.org.


College Unbound. 2017. “Mission.” http://www.collegeunbound.org/apps/pages/mission.

Kamenetz, Anya. 2010. DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.

———. 2015. “A New Kind of College Wins State Approval in Rhode Island.” NPR Ed, May 27. http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2015/05/27/ 408793531/a-new-kind-of-college-wins-state-approval-in-rhode-island.

Kuh, George D. 2008. High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Merisotis, Jamie. 2013. “Lumina’s Adult Degree Completion Commitment.” Lumina Foundation. July 11. https://www.luminafoundation.org/news-and-views/luminaans-adult-degree-completion-commitment.

Lauren Roy is a College Unbound Student; Liya Escalera is Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at Bunker Hill Community College; Stephanie Fernandez is Assistant Dean for Administration and Finance in the College of Science and Mathematics at the University of Massachusetts Boston; Ebru Korbek-Erdogmus is Assistant Dean for Projects and Communications in the College of Science and Mathematics at the University of Massachusetts Boston; Jennifer Reid is Director of the Cape Cod Campus at Bridgewater State University; Adam Bush is Provost of College Unbound; and John Saltmarsh is Professor of Higher Education at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

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