Dennis Littky looks every inch an iconoclast. With his omnipresent kofia, white goatee and casual manner — the words “ain’t” and “man” regularly pepper his speech — the 74-year-old self-styled “radical educator” seems more ashram guru than international education thought leader. But his track record is hard to dispute: Littky, who holds twin Ph.D.s in psychology and education, has been founding and running schools for over 40 years, along the way garnering praise from the likes of the Gates Foundation (which has awarded several million dollars to fund his efforts) and Barack Obama.
Littky first gained attention in the late ’80s as the principal of the troubled Thayer High School in New Hampshire, where his unorthodox appearance and methods eventually got him fired (which was grist for the 1992 TV movie “A Town Torn Apart”). After co-founding a nonprofit, Big Picture Learning, that today operates more than 75 schools in the U.S. and more than 100  around the world, he turned his attention to post-secondary education with the launch of College Unbound in 2009.
Designed to address the needs of underrepresented, nontraditional college students, most of whom have full-time, low-wage jobs, College Unbound caters to adults with some college credit but no degree. Focusing on each student’s unique talents and interests, Littky’s innovative formula seems to be working: The Providence, Rhode Island–based school currently enrolls around 200 students, 80 percent of whom graduate, says Littky.
NationSwell spoke with Littky about how College Unbound supports adult students, why a bachelor of arts degree still matters, and how to get credit for one’s “life” work.
NationSwell: After establishing the Big Picture and Met schools, why did you decide to open a college for underserved populations?
Dennis Littky: There are 37 million people in this country who started college and didn’t finish. Ten years ago I [realized] college sucks for poor kids. If kids in the lowest quartile actually start college, 89 percent don’t make it through, which is absurd. So I said, “I think I can reverse that.”
NationSwell: Why is getting a bachelor’s degree so important in this country? Some might argue that vocational schools can help fill that gap.
Littky: In the year 2019, if you are poor and of color, you ain’t moving anywhere without a bachelor’s degree. It’s the bar, and it is still a symbol that you know what you’re doing. It’s the middle class that tells you, “Yeah, there are a lot of different pathways.” Yeah, [but are] you sending your kid to a four-year college or are you sending them to a plumbing school? There are other ways, but [a degree] is very important right now.
NationSwell: All of your previous work was with kids in high school and younger. Why did you change your focus to helping people finish college, particularly older people?
Littky: We started [College Unbound] with young kids, and then I kept having 25-year-olds, 35-year-olds, 45-year-olds, come to us and say, “We dropped out when we were 20, man. I went back when I was 23. I dropped out again. And we can’t get back in school. We don’t want to sit next to an 18-year-old. We’re now 38. We can’t go to school at 2 o’clock in the afternoon.” So 10 years ago I wrote a Facebook post saying, “If you started school and dropped out, come [out tonight] at 7 o’clock.” I had 78 people show up who wanted to finish their education — a lot of single moms, a lot of people working two jobs.

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Dennis Littky (left) with College Unbound founding provost Adam Bush.

We morphed the college into what we call a degree-completion college, so it’s for people who have started [college]. We get them to come out one night a week for three hours. They’re in a cohort model so they support each other. They’ve all dropped out a million times. We’ve been keeping 86 percent of the people in, which is ridiculously good. And that’s with 75 percent who are eligible for federal Pell grants, which is ridiculously poor. To give you perspective, 7 percent of students at Brown University are eligible for this aid.
NationSwell: College Unbound provides childcare and dinner for students. I have a 4-year-old so I can understand how complicated going back to school would be, especially if also working full-time.
Littky: The other day [a prospective] student heard me talk. She hadn’t been able to go back to school. And then I said, “Food — you can come right from work.” She checked it off. She has a kid, so she checked daycare off. We do everything we can do to help an adult get through. We’re also inside the Rhode Island Department of Corrections; we’ve had 93 students in the prison. When they get out, they take what we call a gateway course, which helps them with the transition back to society and prepares them to move into the college.
NationSwell: I was reading that you partnered with another school, an accredited institution, that provides the actual diploma. Is that how it works?
Littky: We had [being doing that], but now we’re on our own — we got approved as the 13th college in Rhode Island, and we were the first school approved in 26 years. The [accreditation commission] is very protective of who they let in; it’s very tough. We went through a three-year process. And last September, we got what’s called candidacy, the most important step, which means we now can apply for the federal government to give our students financial aid — that’s a big thing. If you have poor students, you need them to be eligible for financial aid, and they can’t get that unless the school is accredited.
NationSwell: So when students graduate this year, their diploma will say College Unbound for the first time?
Littky: Yes. Hopefully in the fall, the first people entering can collect financial aid right through us.
NationSwell: I skimmed your course catalog and noticed more pragmatic fields of study like social and business ethics instead of, say, a film class or other squishy liberal arts stuff. Why is that?
Littky: We have one major that’s going to help people succeed in life: organizational leadership and change. They take courses on leadership; writing for change; and reframing failure, where they reexamine [past mistakes] and do a “résumé of failures.” There’s also a research course, and one that contextualizes their work and workplace. We try to make everything relevant. But we have science courses, we have statistics courses, we have everything. We give out 120 credits, like everybody else.
NationSwell: College Unbound serves nontraditional students, all of whom are adults. What is a typical day like for these atypical students?
Littky: Most people going to community college take a course here, a course there, and they’re 80 before they graduate. The majority of our students have jobs. A student might come in at 5:30 p.m., grab her food, put her kid in the corner with a book. She’ll start mingling with her cohort, about 15 people. Every student has a project. There’s usually either a professor online or a professor right there who’s giving them some content about their courses. They take two courses at a time for eight weeks. One day they’re meeting with a lab faculty advisor to get one-on-one work.
Our job is to get these people [to graduate], right? And to honor what work they’ve done for the last 20 years, OK? So we have something called prior learning experience. There’s an organization called the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning that we partnered with. You can put together all the novels that you’ve read and all the work that you’ve done, and they can be submitted. If they find a course that’s similar, an English course, you can get credit for it. There’s also something called CLEP exams, which are proficiency exams and have been approved in this country as college credit. So if I have people that speak Spanish — and half my population speaks Spanish — they can take those exams and get six to 12 credits.
After Kurt Vonnegut wrote “Cat’s Cradle,” [the University of Chicago] gave him an honorary degree. I was thinking about that — I’ve got a lot of honorary degrees. Sometimes you just think it’s bullshit, but on the other hand, it’s based on real work, right? And that’s what we do. We try to give credit to adults for their life’s work.
More: What If We Could Nearly Double the Graduation Rate of Community College Students With One Simple Idea?