Anchoring Higher Education in the Community
By Dennis Littky & Michael K. Allio
The higher-education system is failing its students. It continues to drift further and further away from its cultural, moral, and practical mission of helping individuals acquire knowledge and skills, realize their potential, and engage with and enhance their communities.
The national average for college completion for students overall is just 62.3 percent, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The system has proven especially ineffective for adult learners: 39 million Americans have attended some college but have obtained no degree or credential—up from 36 million in 2019. Their college completion rate—itself a low bar for judging effectiveness—is just 51.1 percent.
Could we change higher ed to make it more meaningful and relevant for adult learners? What would a reimagined college look like? And how could such a model promote systemic change in higher ed on a national scale?
These questions have propelled our team over the past decade to design, build, iterate, and grow College Unbound (CU), an accredited nonprofit college focused on adult learners who have faced significant barriers to attending and completing college. CU’s student-driven curriculum builds job readiness and leadership skills. Students design projects and receive credit for learning in career-focus areas, with assignments anchored in the community and workplace. They tackle practical, real-world challenges that hone their skills and help them navigate complexity. Because CU grants credits for both prior learning and life experience, the path to a BA is typically shorter.
Our philosophy and mission aim not only to serve our students and their communities, but also to transform higher education and the systems in which it is embedded, so that graduates, their communities, their employers, and the broader public benefit. But we need further support from allies, funders, and policy makers to succeed.
Click here to read the full article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. To learn more about Barra’s work with College Unbound, visit our Stories & Ideas page.