College Unbound Case Study Offers Inside Look at Future of Innovation in Higher Education
Published: October 03, 2019

A case study of the 10-year journey through regional accreditation of the non-traditional institution College Unbound uncovers the innovation behind a learner-centered and student-driven approach to higher education, according to a new ACE report.  

This nonprofit, independent college in Providence, Rhode Island, serves low-income working adults who are returning to college to earn their first degree. Four years ago, College Unbound was authorized as the 13th college in Rhode Island (the first new college in the state in two decades). Since then, it has earned candidacy for regional accreditation and qualified to participate in federal Title IV student financial aid programs. It will administer Pell Grants for its own students for this first time this fall.

College Unbound offers a Bachelor of Arts degree in organizational leadership and change, which qualifies students for a variety of occupations in many growing industries in Rhode Island and across the region, such as management, business, and social services, according to the report. It is a flexible degree-completion program, enabling students to design their own programs of study to suit their particular life and career goals. College Unbound maximizes course credit transfers and prior learning assessment so the students begin the program with a healthy number of credits. Their average time to degree is about 2.5 years.

ACE released the report, “A College Unbound: Lessons on Innovation from a Student-Driven College’s Journey Through Regional Accreditation” as part of an event in Washington, DC yesterday where speakers and panelists explored the innovation journey from all stakeholder perspectives and offered lessons for other institutions that want to innovate in meaningful ways to serve their students with quality, affordable higher education.

“We know postsecondary education is important not only to individual economic success, but also for our diverse democratic society, and it is time we change our perspective on students and re-envision our institutions. We need to explore new models, which is why ACE is excited to share this case study,” said Louis Soares, ACE chief learning and innovation officer and lead author of the report.

It is projected that, starting around 2026, there will be a 15 percent drop in the traditional college-going population, the report explains. There is an increased demand for not only postsecondary credentials in the labor market but also models that support a lifelong educational approach.

It’s estimated that 35 million adults have some credit but no degree and a majority of college students work full time or part time, have children or are supporting other dependents, and are looking for something different than a traditional college education.

The report offers ideas for how more institutions can more effectively engage working adult students, including investing in tools and resources that support this population, and encourages states and regional accreditors to be more proactive in their support for innovative models.

Click here to read the report and learn more.