President’s corner: Dr. Larry Johnson on leading one of the nation’s most successful community colleges

"Once we have created that culture of belonging, openness and collaboration as students feel it, they are, in turn, successful," President Larry Johnson says.

Dr. Larry Johnson first encountered Stella and Charles Guttman Community College in 2015 as a dean at Broward College (Fla.) when he read the seminal book “Redesigning America’s Community Colleges: A Clearer Path to Student Success.” Already well abreast of the role two-year institutions can play in students’ lives, Johnson was enamored by Guttman’s bold ways it geared students for success: appreciative advising, first-year student cohort team-building exercises and intensive pre-enrollment orientation sessions.

Johnson likens the City University of New York (CUNY) community college to an experiment that strives to understand how successfully a community college can serve its students if all the traditional barriers inhibiting them were removed.

“When they begin day one, they are ready for the rigor of the institution,” he says.

Guttman’s hypothesis has been well supported so far. The U.S. Department of Education recently found that the CUNY college had the fourth-highest transfer-out rate for Title IV students in the nation; 55% ultimately earned bachelor’s degrees within eight years, compared to the country’s 13% average. In 2020, just eight years following its founding, named it the best community college in America.

Johnson is no longer a distant admirer. He is quickly approaching his three-year mark as Guttman’s president. Although he presides over an institution on the cutting edge of student support designs, he doesn’t rest on its laurels.

“I know that if I were successful [in becoming president], I would build upon Guttman’s model and consider what more the institution could do to expand itself and what that would look like,” Johnson says. “So it was really about a college that was doing some unique things that I’ve read about and how I could build upon that through collaboration with the faculty, staff and community.”

Guttman’s “high-touch” help

Leaders at the nexus of K12 and higher education are continuing to understand how students, especially from underresourced backgrounds, require personalized guidance through every stage of the postsecondary journey. Guttman takes this philosophy to heart, ensuring learners are geared for success in the application process, curriculum, career prospects and everyday living.

Before students can attend classes, they must go through a series of information sessions and interviews with counselors to gauge students’ fit. Next, they must attend the Bridge Program, which ingratiates them with all the available academic resources available to them, as well as their teachers, students and related staff.

“Once we have created that culture of belonging, openness and collaboration as students feel it, they are, in turn, successful,” Johnson says

Once classes start, first-year students must attend full-time; evidence suggests students have a higher completion and retention rate by taking more than 11 credits per semester. Part of their curriculum is a course taught by their academic advisors on how to be a successful student. Students learn about time management and can commiserate with colleagues on some of their first-year challenges, which then inform Guttman about their practices.

Guttman also provides students with bus and train passes, housing insecurity support and an on-campus food bank for students facing uncertain living conditions. Teachers also prioritize open educational resources to minimize book costs.

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Embracing the next frontier in community college learning

There are six other community colleges throughout New York City’s five boroughs. What makes Guttman so distinct is its target enrollment focus: students coming directly out of high school. As solid as its track record is in ensuring they transfer to four-year institutions, Johnson understands that there are many definitions of success besides a bachelor’s degree. The next frontier for Guttman is strengthening students’ workforce development skills.

Despite all the support Guttman’s students receive, Johnson understands that extenuating circumstances can prohibit students from dedicating themselves to school full-time. In those cases, he wants to expand into certificates that provide students with better flexibility in navigating onramps and offramps into education through short-term credentials they can use in the workforce.

For students who have the luxury of attending full-time, the next step is partnering with employers to better identify how programs can lead to specific career paths.

“We have to cultivate relationships with employers, identify their needs, and develop programming that centers around them. It’s important to communicate to faculty and staff that this is about moving toward something that will not only strengthen our current model but also strengthen students’ outcomes,” Johnson says.

Listen to Johnson explain why certificates are Guttman’s next strategy.

Visualizing success for POC

As of fall 2022, 82% of Guttman’s students are Black or Hispanic. As a Black man who helps students visualize their place in higher education, President Johnson understands what it takes to break free of inhibitions through community and inclusive-based practices.

Listen to President Johnson explain how he cultivated his courage to become the exceptional leader he is today:

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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