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Artisanal U.: The Radical Potential of College Without the Classroom

From our winter issue, GOOD 025: The Next Big Thing

Joyce Alcantara grew up in Rhode Island with her mom, three sisters, two nieces, and a cousin. Her dad, incarcerated in Florida, isn’t really a part of her life. Alcantara had trouble with classes her senior year in high school and almost dropped out; her saving grace was a strong interest in social work and clinical psychology, fostered by an internship at a family services drop-in center. This fall, she started her freshman year at Southern New Hampshire University as part of a new program called College Unbound. “I have made the best with what I have. If not for the struggles, if not for the hardship, I would not be as strong as I am today,” she wrote in her application. But even with all she has going for her, even after beating the odds just to get her high school diploma, a student like Alcantara, the first in her family to go to college, has only an 11 percent chance of graduating.

Dennis Littky thinks that’s not good enough. “An 89 percent dropout rate? That’s absurd. Typically we blame the students, but it may not be all the students’ fault— it may be the colleges’ fault,” he says. “Colleges have to be student-ready rather than students just being college-ready.”

Over the past two years, Littky has launched College Unbound as a prototype for how higher learning can cater to kids, instead of the other way around. Students live in small, tight-knit communities, work one-on-one with advisers to fashion individualized learning plans built around a job or internship that speaks to a personal passion, pursue independent research related to their fields, and cover the humanities and math together in seminars. It’s an update of the educational model Littky has been refining over three decades, tailored to meet the needs of college students like Joyce Alcantara. Yet despite his track record of success with the nation’s toughest learners, funders have balked.

Littky’s artisanal, hands-on approach—he often uses the slogan “one student at a time”—flies in the face of the prevailing vision for education reform. Typified by Khan Academy’s short math videos and adaptive learning software, which were lauded by Bill Gates himself from the TED Conference stage this year, the new model calls for cutting-edge technology, millions of users, and massive amounts of automatically generated data on student outcomes. “Everybody wants to see the numbers, everyone wants results and they want them now,” says Ray McNulty, a former senior fellow at the Gates Foundation who has followed Littky’s career for 15 years. (Full disclosure: I received funding from the Gates Foundation for my latest book.)

A perpetual risk-taker, Littky is entering a whole new realm of education, about which he admits he’s “naive.” In the middle of a historic recession, he’s committed significant resources from his own foundation toward a new, untested model, and he’s fine-tuning and redesigning the car while it’s on the road.

Littky’s trying to scale up his model fast enough to prove its merits, incorporate technology, and start generating the kind of results that can convince big donors while making it financially sustainable. Even more importantly, he’s put his legacy on the line: his core belief that you can transform the lives of students like Alcantara by connecting to their passions. “Everything we’ve done has been learning and leading up to this,” he says.

* * *

When I first came to Providence last fall to visit College Unbound, Littky picked me up at the train station in his4x4 and zoomed through the crowded downtown streets, all while texting with staff and students and talking a mile a minute. (Now that we’ve gotten to know each other, I often get epic texts from him with three or four new ideas.) He’s in his 60s, wears a white goatee, often uses salty language (he calls the Gates obsession with metrics “stupid shit”) and keeps a collection of outrageous hippie hats; last summer he visited Burning Man for the first time and had a blast. He’s also known throughout the Northeast as an educational innovator. In the early ’90s, Michael Tucker of L.A. Law fame played him in a TV movie about his battle to turn around a high school in rural New Hampshire. In 1995, he and Elliot Washor founded Big Picture Learning, an organization designed to stop the dropout crisis by promoting “authentic, relevant learning.” Their flagship, Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center in Providence, is a high school without classes. Students spend four years shaping a personalized curriculum with advisers; along the way, they intern offsite, take classes at local colleges, and present what they’ve learned to the community through exhibitions. Tom Vander Ark, then the head of the Gates Foundation’s education program, called the Met his “favorite high school in America.”

When I visited the school, students were sitting in a carpeted hallway, working quietly together on a math problem. One might be studying geometry to use at her internship at a graphic design firm, while another might need to go over statistics for his job coaching middle school basketball and a third has to learn the accounting ropes for her job assisting a tax preparer. The atmosphere is reminiscent of some elite private schools, and the test scores and graduation rate are similar. But the school is public, and the students are from families like Alcantara’s. Since 1995, Big Picture Learning has built a network of 60 small high schools in the toughest urban districts around the country—Detroit, Newark, L.A. All share the Met’s philosophy and model: “It’s life to text, not text to life,” says Littky. “It’s about finding a student’s passion and interest, and you build everything off of that.”

Big Picture was working, students were graduating. But there was a problem: Littky had no control over what happened next. And his students were floundering once they left high school. “Colleges have some of the worst pedagogy you see anywhere—large lecture classes. The emphasis usually isn’t on teaching. They give you these fat textbooks that nobody reads after they get out, and professors try to teach everyone to be a little professor.” The Big Picture graduates weren’t getting the same personalized attention as before. They were missing the connection between their academic requirements and real life, and struggling to cover tuition and other expenses. Most of them had to balance school with work and other responsibilities. “I really thought we’re kidding ourselves if we do this job and then 90 percent of the kids drop out,” he says. “That’s fucked up! And when I get the fire there’s nothing I can do—it controls me.”

So Littky put a chunk of Big Picture Learning’s money, along with some foundation grants, behind an experiment he calls College Unbound. Littky and cofounder Jamie Scurry would recruit eight Big Picture graduates from around the country to live together with an academic and residential adviser in a house in Providence. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, the students would meet in an intensive seminar that crunches three general-ed requirements at a time into one, with lots of writing. Tuesdays and Thursdays, they’d be out working on field projects, including interning at a sustainable architecture firm, making animated technology videos for the Mozilla Foundation, working on-set at an ABC drama, and making plans to open a salon for natural African-American hairstyles.

He convinced the Continuing Studies department of Roger Williams, a local private university, to accept his College Unbound students and—crucially—to award them an accelerated bachelor’s degree in three years. The first class arrived on campus in 2009.

Roger Williams expects to graduate 80 percent of that first group in the spring of 2012, and the entire second class is on track to graduate in 2013. This past fall, students started in three more College Unbound programs. One is a nonresidential night program based at Roger Williams exclusively for adult learners. The second is a residential program for traditional students at the private Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). And the third, and most unusual, is a distance-learning program based at the Ashé Cultural Arts Center in New Orleans.

Talking to Littky’s current collaborators, you get a sense of the ripples his model is sending out across a landscape desperate for new solutions. “Higher education needs to be shaken up,” says John Stout, dean of Roger Williams’ School of Continuing Studies. How broken is the system? Over the past 20 years, the United States has fallen from first to 12th in the percentage of young people with postsecondary degrees. Tuition’s doubled in the past decade, rising faster than any other item in the Consumer Price Index since 1978. Student loan default rates are increasing. Only 56 percent of students complete a four-year degree in six years. And a nationwide study last year, using a test called the Collegiate Learning Assessment, found that 36 percent of students demonstrate no gain in learning between freshman and senior year. Stout says that working with College Unbound students has helped convince some of the more old-school faculty of the validity of buzzwords like integrated, experience-based, and outcomes-based learning. “These students are much more attuned to having to explain things to people, with their multimedia exhibitions and demonstrations of their work,” he says.
“They are forcing the whole program to be aware of how each course connects to one another, and how skills can be attained in real life.”

Paul LeBlanc, president of SNHU, was eager to try the College Unbound program as a way to improve retention among students who are first in their families to go to college. “We serve a lot of first-generation students who were maybe B students in high school, who come to us as not fully confident learners for a whole number of reasons. We want College Unbound to succeed on its own terms, but also to see how it might reshape traditional delivery as well.” College Unbound students at SNHU will live in the dorms and have a chance to join clubs, parties, teams, and all that other good stuff, but will have to balance it with their community work. “It’s a flipping of the relationship between the classroom and hands-on learning,” says LeBlanc.

When I reach Joyce Alcantara in New Hampshire a few weeks into her freshman year, she sounds exhausted but exhilarated. She says she’s had no more than an hour of downtime.

“Dennis always says that the world is our classroom. We’re out there doing things. We’re in offices and conference rooms where people in our field are seeing us as colleagues, not just as an intern.” She’ll be working with Child and Family Services of New Hampshire, where her initial project is shadowing people in various departments to build an online database of the agency’s services. Although Alcantara misses her tight-knit family—she Skypes with her mother, aunt, and nieces a few times a day “just to see their faces”—she’s comforted that she’ll be embedded with the same small learning community for the next three years. She feels surrounded by support from her classmates and program mentors. “I’m not used to people caring so much about my success and calling out my weaknesses to help me turn them into strengths.”

One of the most promising incarnations of College Unbound is unfolding in a very different setting far from the leafy Northeast: New Orleans’ Central City neighborhood. The Ashé Cultural Arts Center has been a driving force in the city’s rebirth after Hurricane Katrina, with programs in dance, theater, storytelling, and visual arts for children, women, and the elderly. Adam Bush, College Unbound’s director of curriculum, traveled to New Orleans last year with two students and attended a community-sing event at Ashé. Afterward, he got into a deep conversation with the center’s director, Carol Bebelle, a woman he says “I am in awe of.” Bebelle got excited about the idea of starting a College Unbound program
so members of the Ashé community, both employees and volunteers, could finish their bachelor’s degrees. These are people in their mid-20s to mid-50s who have well-developed passions and careers—in storytelling, in health and wellness, in early-childhood education—but are missing that piece of parchment. “It’s a way of removing another kind of glass ceiling, to create alternate pathways for people in this community,” says Bebelle. The dozen Ashé students met biweekly for almost a year and crafted individualized learning plans with Bush over Skype that include documentation to get credit for learning from their life experiences. They started their first semester this fall with a single class; three years from now, they will graduate with Roger Williams degrees. They’ll pay winter 2011 / the next big thing $6,000 a year; Ashé has raised the rest from Spike Lee’s foundation and other donors.

Bush believes that the Ashé collaboration could be the future of College Unbound: designing and supporting learning plans so people who already have jobs and support networks can complete their degrees. There are 44 million adults in the United States with some college experience and no degree, more than the number of people with bachelor’s degrees. Littky is talking to Ready to Learn Providence, a community organization that offers training to day-care workers. “A vast majority of these early-childhood workers don’t have degrees,” says Bush. “They need accreditation and certification. We could create a whole network of thematic colleges that use the structure of College Unbound and tie it to work already happening collectively.” Such an expansion— partnering with unions, community organizations, cultural centers—could be both faster and cheaper than creating communities and placements from scratch, especially if the program develops software templates to streamline the work of crafting learning plans and takes advantage of free online educational resources.

* * *

With its emphasis on engaged advisers, individualized curricula, and real-world experience, College Unbound clearly has the ability to turn drifting students into success stories and dropouts into graduates. What’s not clear is how such a labor-intensive and experimental model could grow to have a significant impact on the future of higher education as a whole. First-generation students are most typically found at community colleges, the largest sector in higher ed and also the one that has the least money to spend per student; though enrollment has skyrocketed at public two-year schools in the past decade, they face the deepest budget cuts of any type of college. Even College Unbound’s supporters say they’re not sure how the program will be able to grow in this economic environment. “I feel bad for Dennis that he’s hit a wall with funders in the last 18 months because of skepticism around scalability,” says LeBlanc.

Littky counters that College Unbound, at least the Roger Williams version, is on the verge of becoming self-sufficient at a cost of $10,000 in tuition per student. Not coincidentally, that’s the same figure that community colleges spend per student, and it can be significantly offset by Pell Grants and scholarships. What the program spends on its high ratio of advisers to students, Littky says, it saves in acceleration and in the flipped-classroom approach—having students spend most of their time doing real work for real employers is cheaper than having them in class.

Those who have been touched by this experiment so far are optimistic that Littky’s influence will percolate across the heaving higher-education landscape. “It remains to be seen if this can transfer into an institutional setting—we’re talking about very small numbers,” says Dean Stout at Roger Williams. “On the other hand, look at all the things that have come along in higher education.” For example, internships for credit, born in the ’70s, have become nearly ubiquitous. “Even if this succeeds only slightly, it could have an enormous effect. If it’s an idea that’s worth pursuing, you hope the system can adjust to it and change.”

Littky is working like “a maniac” to try to make that change. He's still overseeing Big Picture and the Met as he opens the two new programs, counseling students through money problems and mental-health crises, sitting through late-night curriculum meetings, lunching with venture capitalists, and barnstorming for College Unbound everywhere from South by Southwest in Austin to a conference in Qatar. “I want this to be so big. My dream is that we’ve hit this so right that people are going to swarm to it. With the distance learning, I think we can have millions. When I’m 80, we’ll see if I was right.”

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