College Unbound (CU) was founded in the fall of 2009 as an initiative of Big Picture Learning with planning grants from the Lumina Foundation, the Nellie Mae Foundation, and Big Picture Learning. College Unbound was created to address the needs of first generation low-income college students.


The First Year


The program began with 10 traditional-aged college students sharing living and study space in a three-story home on the Lower South Side of Providence, RI. Students shared chores and ideas, while participating in part-time internships and engaging in course curriculum related to their work.


While enrolled at CU, students were simultaneously enrolled at the regionally accredited School of Continuing Studies at Roger Williams University (RWU), a private non-profit university. We developed the curriculum and design and RWU awarded the degrees. This original cohort graduated in 2012 with their bachelor's degrees.


As the original cohort of traditional-aged students progressed, older adults knocked on our doors. Midway through year one, two adult women joined the program. By Spring, another five adult learners signed up for year two.
The addition of adult learners changed the culture of the program. These motivated and focused adult students tapped into their diverse life experiences and increased the level of discussion for all our students. Each had a full-time job, which enriched the workplace learning opportunities and inspired authentic projects of immediate use in the world. Each had started college degree programs at one point (many returning several times), but were unable to finish due to competing demands on their time (e.g. family responsibilities, full-time jobs).
At the end of year two, College Unbound posted a Facebook invitation to adult learners with some college credit, but no degree. 75 adults showed up the next night. 25 enrolled for the fall. It seemed we had found our niche. 20 adult learners graduated by Spring 2013 (three within nine months of joining CU).

In Fall 2010, the Ashé Cultural Arts Center in New Orleans, LA., worked with CU staff to structure a program that would move a cohort of New Orleans-based cultural workers towards a bachelor’s degree. The Ashé Cultural Arts Center became CU’s first affinity cohort of students. These New Orleans community leaders used our curriculum model and supported each other as they undertook CU-designed courses for degrees in Community and Cultural Development. Ashé Unbound opened with a single course in 2011 and then as a total program in Winter of 2012. Ashe Unbound students graduated in the Spring of 2013 with their bachelor's degree. Through this partnership we solidified our understanding of the impact cohort-based learning has on college completion.

College Unbound was approached to create an on-campus degree pathway for another private non-profit university in the Fall of 2011. SNHU president Paul LeBlanc announced the new program, saying: “College Unbound is our new initiative designed to reach out to students who want a different learning model, who want to save money, and who still want a SNHU campus experience. By reversing the relationship of field-based learning and the work of the classroom, with the latter now serving the former, we have a breakthrough program for every student who ever chafed at sitting in a classroom for hours and yearned for hands- on learning.”
The three-year, intensive, year-round program continues today on the SNHU campus. It unites personal motivation and discipline with progressive course work and real-world learning. Five College Unbound students have received Bachelor of Arts degrees from SNHU in May of 2014.


College Unbound refocused in the Fall of 2012, targeting adult learners with some college credit but no degree, continuing to refine our curriculum model. Many of these students simultaneously enrolled at RWU. A College Unbound cohort of early childhood workers sprang from a relationship with Ready 2 Learn, a Providence organization committed to improving early childhood education for low-income families. We also developed a cohort with workers from the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence.


The refocusing also allowed us to define our major and the 21st century skills that had been the foundation of College Unbound student learning. The Big 10 was born—a collection of intellectual, practical, and social skills that employers and life demands—and became the lens through which all student learning experiences are planned, assessed, and credited. With adult learners, our curriculum model was refined. The key elements now became:


  • One Student at a Time - Students begin with their passions and areas of interest, as well as their current abilities, skills, and struggles. Each student develops a personal learning plan to address these needs.
  • Workplace Learning – Students build skills and knowledge in their fields of interest through self- initiated projects either in their current workplace or at arranged internships.

  • Mentoring – Rather than a single professor per course, students work with a professional mentor at the work site, an academic advisor, field experts, and a supportive group of peers.
  • Shared Assessment - Students maintain online portfolios of their work, and twice per semester students demonstrate knowledge and skills through public analysis of their work.

In Fall 2013, College Unbound extended its reach with a new partner, Charter Oak State College, an online public college based in Connecticut that has been serving adult learners well for over 40 years. This partnership provided College Unbound with the opportunity to strengthen its online presence and provide students with another entry point to a bachelor of arts degree.
Taking our high touch model into the high-tech environment, we committed to preserving the following principles:


  • Personalization goes beyond allowing the student to set the pace in their progress through the same curriculum. It means allowing them to direct both curriculum and pacing.
  • Technology must be used to do more than deliver content; it provides tools to discover, create, use, assess, discuss, manipulate and reshape content.
  • Technology is also a tool to connect students with each other and with all the members of their support network.
  • Online learning works well when students are supported by active Personal Learning Networks and we provide weekly on-the-ground support.
  • When assessment is shared between professors, academic advisors, workplace mentors, field experts, and peers, the learning is rigorous, relevant, and ongoing.

Lumina’s Vice President of Communications and Innovation, Dr. Kiko Suarez, noted that, “College Unbound has a track record of helping returning adults complete a bachelor’s degree while working in real life projects. The CU team have developed an innovative model that could well represent the future for adult learners.”


College Unbound and the Lumina Foundation posted a $10,000 International Challenge on May 31, 2014, looking for ideas to scale and sustain the College Unbound adult learning model.


The challenge was addressed by 310 solvers from around the world in 44 submissions. Judges selected first, second, and third place submissions and announced winners in October of 2014. In addition to the College Unbound team, judges included:


  • Dr. David Scobey - Executive Dean, The New School for Public Engagement
  • Dr. James Honan - Senior Associate Director of Advanced Leadership, Harvard Graduate School of Education 
  • Dr. Eileen McGowan - Lecturer - Education Leadership, Harvard Graduate School of Education
  • Anya Kamenetz - Contributing Writer at Fast Company Magazine, Author of DIY U, Edupunks Guide


The Lumina Foundation granted $300,000 in 2014 to aid College Unbound with business planning and strategizing for scale.

College Unbound's partnership with Charter Oak State College continued to grow over the course of the 2014-2015 academic year. College Unbound created a concentration in Organizational and Community Studies which formalized the instruction of courses like Reframing Failure, Contextualizing Work, and Community Assessment into the CU student experience. In May 2015, over 200 people showed to witness fourteen of their colleagues walk in the College Unbound graduation ceremony. During the ceremony College Unbound officially established its Alumni Association and presented its first ever College Unbound Alumni Award. 

Based on the success of the Ashé Unbound cohort model, CU has launched additional place-based programs over the last five years.
CU @ Work: CU partners with employers to deliver college within the workplace, education that benefits the employer and positions students to complete a B.A. This is not an internship program in which outside students come into an organization, and it's not a typical tuition-reimbursement program in which the employee takes outside courses funded by the organization; this is education planned with employers and student-employees and embedded within the organization. In 2018 we launched a pilot cohort with United Way of Rhode Island and in fall 2019 we added a cohort at The Providence Community Health Center.
Aquidneck Island: Thanks to grants from the van Beuren Charitable Foundation, The Prince Charitable Trusts, The Rhode Island Foundation and The John Clarke Trust, CU launched a cohort in Aquidneck Island to help meet the Newport Working Cities Challenge to decrease the poverty rate in the city by at least 20 percent in the next 10 years.
College Unbound's Prison Education Program: Since the fall of 2015, College Unbound has been working with currently and formerly incarcerated students from the Rhode Island Department of Corrections and has achieved significant results. Inside, our students work through a 15-credit curriculum of College Unbound coursework. Upon completion of all 15 credits inside, a ceremony is held and students are awarded a certificate of completion. Incarcerated alumni remain connected to the program by becoming alumni mentors and recruiters. If students are released while in the program, they can transfer their credits to College Unbound and continue on the pathway towards degree completion. Recently released students are transitioned into an outside cohort of students – all of whom were formerly incarcerated and are working towards their bachelor’s degree. 

In an historic and unanimous vote on May 20, 2015, the Rhode Island Council on Postsecondary Education welcomed College Unbound as a degree-granting postsecondary option in the state. It was standing room only as College Unbound supporters flooded the boardroom to hear the final verdict.  


The crowd cheered when council member John J. Smith spoke of College Unbound’s ability to serve underrepresented, low-income adult learners, saying, “This particular program appears to give them hope, so they are able to not only feel pride in themselves and in their work, but have an opportunity to grow, expand, and to find their pathway.”


Rhode Island Commissioner of Postsecondary Education Dr. Jim Purcell also praised the college, saying, “Education is all about bringing forth the capacity that exists within people, and College Unbound offers people the opportunity to expand their minds, finish their degrees, and build better lives.” Dr. Purcell continued, saying, “These types of adult degree completion programs are transformative not just for the individuals and their families, but also for our community and workforce.”


In 2018, College Unbound was granted Candidate for Accreditation status by the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE, formerly the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Inc.). Candidate for Accreditation is a status of affiliation with the Commission which indicates that the institution has achieved initial recognition and is progressing toward accreditation.


In the Spring of 2019, College Unbound received Federal Financial aid eligibility, enabling CU students to qualify for Pell grants and other financial aid options. In Fall 2019 College Unbound welcomed 100 new students, more than 75% of whom receive Pell grants.


In 2020, College Unbound was granted initial accreditation status by the New England Commission of Higher Education. Accreditation by the Commission indicates that the institution meets or exceeds criteria for the assessment of institutional quality periodically applied through a peer review process.


An accredited college or university has been found to have the necessary resources to achieve its stated purposes through appropriate educational programs. It also gives reasonable evidence that it will continue to do so in the foreseeable future. Accreditation by the Commission is not partial but applies to the institution as a whole. As such, it is not a guarantee of every course or program offered, or the competence of individual graduates. Rather, it provides reasonable assurance about the quality of opportunities available to students who attend the institution.

In 2022, College Unbound under S.A.R.A. (State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement), expanded to the State of Pennsylvania, and in 2023 to the State of New Jersey, under the guidance of former Big Picture Philadelphia Executive Director, David Bromley.

College Unbound is enrolling students in Pennsylvania and New Jersey through partnerships with the Philadelphia Housing Authority, the School District of Philadelphia, Public Health Management Corporation, Aspira, Big Picture Philadelphia and Camden Big Picture Learning Academy, and continues to seek out additional partnerships with regional corporations and community-based organizations to assure the broadest possible access to adult learners who have faced barriers to attending college.