College Unbound offers a pathway that changes lives

BUILDING THE FUTURE: College Unbound Director of Admissions Jose Rodriguez, left; co-founder, Provost and President Adam Bush; and Sylvia Spears, vice president for administration and innovation, talk during a work session at the Providence nonprofit. 
PBN PHOTO/TRACY JENKINS
BUILDING THE FUTURE: College Unbound Director of Admissions Jose Rodriguez, left; co-founder, Provost and President Adam Bush; and Sylvia Spears, vice president for administration and innovation, talk during a work session at the Providence nonprofit. 
PBN PHOTO/TRACY JENKINS

PBN 2022 Diversity Equity & Inclusion Awards
Higher Education: College Unbound


College Unbound is working to reinvent the college experience for underserved adult learners, many of whom have previously faced barriers to completing a bachelor’s degree.

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A core part of the Providence-based education nonprofit institution’s mission involves creating a more equitable and inclusive educational experience.

Adam Bush, the college’s co-founder and provost who became its president in 2022, said College Unbound is responding to higher education as it is and is trying to push for, co-create and imagine higher education as it could be. “That means,” he said, “centering equity and justice in the curriculum. This can be a reparative space. The site of the degree can be in partnership with trauma-informed pedagogy.”

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The college’s signature program leads to a bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership and change. It was granted accreditation in 2020 by the New England Commission of Higher Education.

Many students enroll with some college credit but no degree. Bush says students often come to College Unbound with past experiences in education, in which they didn’t complete their degree and they weren’t empowered to do so from the institutions.

“While they’re transferring over earned credits in learning, they’re also transferring over apprehension and past experiences where they may not have felt fully valued in the world,” Bush said. “So, our curriculum centers a cohort experience, where folks meet weekly to break bread together, share child care and develop projects of meaning.”

The college’s 2021-22 class was 39% Latinx; 29% white; 19% African American; and 10% multiracial. More than half of the class identified as female, and students largely identified as full-time employees who were balancing work with education. All students receive credit for prior learning, Bush said.

“We want students to know that wherever learning happens, we want to honor it, recognize it and accredit it,” he said. “They’re walking in with their full selves.”

College Unbound is also committed to hiring its alumni and currently employs 45 of them.

“We aspire to be a place where our graduates play a substantial role in the future direction of the college,” Bush said.

Jose Rodriguez, for example, is a College Unbound graduate who now works in a leadership role as the college’s director of admissions. His recruitment strategy involves embedding himself in the community.

“The work of inclusion comes from us showing up to all different community events and being present,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez also points out the college’s status as a designated Hispanic Serving Institution, which is defined by the federal government as having an “enrollment of undergraduate full-time equivalent students that is at least 25% Hispanic students.”

Rodriguez, who grew up in poverty and dropped out of middle school, did not have an easy path to his degree or his current career. He earned his GED while serving time in the R.I. Department of Corrections. After he was released, Rodriguez took some classes at a local public college but did not always feel welcomed or supported, he said.

“I found there’s the notion that if you are a convicted felon, you are no longer an academic, or you can’t be in academia, and you definitely have to be a laborer because those are the only jobs you’re going to be good at,” Rodriguez said. “That is something I’m always going to fight against because I know it’s not true.”

Later, while working at Providence’s Nonviolence Institute, Rodriguez met Bush and College Unbound co-founder Dennis Littky. He enrolled in the college as part of a cohort of students from the institute and received his bachelor’s degree in 2018.

“For every individual who is incarcerated and is able to get their education, not only are they breaking the cycle for themselves but it also sets the stage for their children, and my family is an example of this because my daughter is now in college,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez later went on to earn a master’s degree. Now, in addition to overseeing recruitment as director of admissions, Rodriguez is an instructor at the college.

“I never could have imagined I’d be in a place to teach others,” he said.

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