Bringing It

Bringing It #94: Great Education for Adult Learners, Our Newest Colleague, and News from IA

November 16, 2022

Dear friends,

College Unbound (CU) is a national exemplar of a crucial issue facing higher education: how to offer transformative education for adult, working college students. The great majority of undergraduates don’t match the conventional profile of the college-goer. They may be older or fully employed or unemployed; they may be studying part-time or they may be stopped out. One quarter of all college students are parents; half are financially self-supporting. They’re not, in other words, recent high schoolers enrolled full-time on a four-year campus.

This new majority has been poorly served by a higher-ed system designed with the conventional undergrad in mind. They’re largely marginalized on traditional campuses, and most online schools offer them expensive vocational programs with poor completion rates. CU offers something different: holistic, transformative education that centers strong peer community and project-based learning based on the student’s own priorities. A Pell Grant covers the lion’s share of costs, and CU has a graduation rate of nearly 90 percent. Little wonder that this small, Providence-based institution has begun to garner outsized attention for its creativity and success.

As BT2P works to develop new models of the undergraduate experience in our Paradigm Project, supporting great education for adult, working students couldn’t be more important. We asked Provost Adam Bush and his colleagues to describe some of CU’s values and practices for Bringing It. Their post below and the video “story circle” underscore some key ingredients of the secret sauce: its mix of individualized design and supportive community, its valuing of all forms of student learning—in and out of formal study, past or present—and its emphasis on storytelling as a means of teaching, learning, assessment, and community-building.

CU is part of a network of exemplary adult-serving degree programs that includes the Evergreen State University’s Evening and Weekend Studies Program and The New School’s Bachelor’s Program for Adult and Transfer Students, among others. They point to a vision of adult education that goes beyond the “screen-on-the-kitchen-table” model of mass online programs. But we are also struck by how much CU’s values and practices resonate with those of experimental (but traditional) colleges like Bennington, Hampshire, and Western Washington University’s Fair Haven College. All of these institutions center individualized learning plans, strong community culture, self-authoring, and social engagement.

Many thanks to CU colleagues Adam Bush, Karen Casper, Matthew Sutherland, Amanda Esons, Charlies Dickson, and Julia Travers Rickert for co-authoring this post. Be sure to watch the video (linked above and below), which discusses and embodies their storytelling practice.

Bringing It at College Unbound

The story of College Unbound (CU) began in 2009, when we launched as an agitator for change within higher education as it was. In 2015, we became a college in our own right—developing a new model for a higher education that could still be.

At CU, we have built a student-driven institution that advocates for learning wherever it happens. Our curriculum is centered around a single major—a Bachelor’s of Arts in Organizational Leadership & Change—where students earn credit toward their degree in four concurrent ways:

a. the deep relationships within a cohort experience we call the World & Workplace Lab where each student develops projects of purpose,

b. the inherent flexibility of online courses, where students engage in questions that also support project development,

c. the transfer of credits that a student brings from past experiences in higher education,

d. and documentation of learning that occurs throughout their lives, in an assessment program we call Learning in Public, where prior learning, “soft skills,” community-based and workforce learning all can be reflected authentically on a student’s transcript.

We embrace a truly holistic understanding of our students’ lived experiences, one in which the full scope of their lifelong learning can be recognized, honored, and credited.

Storytelling grounds our program across all these methods of learning and crediting. A student’s first engagement with the college begins with the question, “What do you care about?”; CU tailors their curriculum around that answer. Every two months, students narrate the progress of their projects and get collective feedback (in a methodology modeled after the choreographer Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process). In addition, each semester students gather to share personal narratives through Story Circles that connect them across places and projects.

CU’s graduation is also grounded in storytelling. When a student walks on stage to receive their diploma, they are joined by their whole family because their journey to the degree was a collective one. Instead of a single graduation speaker, every student is offered a chance to share their story.

We, too, in co-authoring this piece, gathered to tell stories. You’ll find a Story Circle that we, members of the Writing Engagement @ College Unbound (WE-CU) took part in. Storytelling helped us surface the heart of what we wanted to share about CU: that learning together asks us to be in community together. That is at the heart of CU. That is how we “bring it!”

Introducing Our Newest Team Member

Greetings! I’m Tammy Moore, and I’m thrilled to join the BT2P team as the Chief Storyteller. I was immediately captivated by this role because of its emphasis on storytelling versus a more traditional angle toward  “communications.” This simple nuance shifts the core responsibilities of the role from “talking at people” to “talking with people,” creating more collaborative, engaging, and inspiring conversations that drive people to action. I spent nearly 10 years working at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, where I led a team responsible for all facets of institutional marketing and communications. The Chief Storyteller role combines my love for creative communications and marketing with a passion for higher education and a desire to continue the narrative for equity and access, outcomes, academic creativity, experiential learning, and self-expression. I look forward to advancing the work of BT2P through stories that inspire people to join, click, rally, participate, speak up, raise a hand, ask questions, and learn more. 

Reflecting on the Imagining America National Gathering

David and I attended the Imagining America National Gathering in New Orleans on Oct. 14-16. It was IA’s first in-person gathering in three years, and at times it felt like a reunion of friends. Reflecting the conference theme, “Ritual of Repair and Renewal” and the vibrancy of New Orleans, it offered joyous celebrations of music, art, and dance, spaces for contemplation and conversation, and opportunities to share publicly engaged work.  

In my role as Vice Chair of IA’s National Advisory Board, I facilitated a panel discussion about IA’s ongoing research. Assessing the Practices of Public Scholarship (APPS) continues to develop tools and resources for understanding the impacts of publicly engaged work that reflect inclusion and co-creation. The project’s co-chairs, Sarah Stanlick and Julia Metzger, warmly invite new collaborators and conversation partners for their ongoing work. 

IA also shared findings from its impressive research on the challenges and possibilities of supporting and advancing public scholarship. This multi-year project, “Critical Intersections,” gathered case studies highlighting a variety of public scholarship projects and institutional change initiatives. The research team facilitated interviews with engaged scholars and graduate students to discern broader themes. IA is making the research publicly available to use as resources for campus and community organizing.      

We are also thrilled that College Unbound will host IA’s National Gathering next fall in Providence, RI. This event will be a great opportunity to showcase CU’s work and the rich campus community partnerships in that city. We look forward to the exciting possibilities for continuing our collaborations and connections with IA. 

-Paul Schadewald

Thanks for staying in touch, contributing to our work, and for all that you do,

David, Paul, Todd, Tammy, and Gianna