Preparing to pivot

Photo: Guttman Community College

A unique community college in New York City that has focused on full-time, mostly traditional-age college students over its first 10 years is preparing for its next phase: Adding more workforce development that can serve older learners by offering part-time and weekend programs, as well as more credit and noncredit opportunities, including certificate programs, internships, credit for prior learning and more.

Guttman Community College has attained national attention for having a student graduation rate that’s about 40%, which is nearly double the national average for community colleges. The college started about a decade ago with a framework designed to increase student persistence, completion, graduation and transfer. Applicants are selected through a central application system based on high school test scores and other metrics. Students agree to enroll full-time during their first year and select a guided career pathway. Another key is offering students various services to help overcome obstacles, such as providing free public transportation.

As the college prepares for its 10th anniversary next August, Guttman’s new president is developing a plan called the Career Innovation Hub that will tweak the existing framework and adapt it toward approaches that will serve more older learners by offering more flexibility. Part of the impetus comes from new economic and workforce demands due to the pandemic.

“The Career Innovation Hub offerings will deliver the kind of extensive, in-demand workforce development programming that New Yorkers need to build bridges to better-paying jobs and family-sustaining wages,” says President Larry Johnson, Jr.

What makes it tick

Students apply to Guttman while in high school, and there’s only one class that starts each fall. Before they begin, students engage in a series of individual meetings the college calls “group information sessions.” These include the admissions team and faculty. New students then must attend a summer bridge program, which assists them with the transition from high school to college by helping them to understand what it means to be a college student and making them aware of resources available to them. Students are then placed in “houses,” through which they are partnered with student success advocates for their first year. The advocates use intrusive advising strategies and high-impact practices. In their second year, students are paired with a career strategist who helps them work through their pathway selection plan into a four-year institution.

“The model is one that is very high touch. We provide a lot of one-on-one with our students,” says Johnson, who notes the college also hires its graduates to serve as peer mentors.

First-year students also must take the Ethnographies of Work course, which helps them begin to think about career pathways. They use workplaces to better understand the knowledge and skills required of certain careers via research, observations, mapping and interviews.

Refining and expanding

Guttman has shorter- and longer-term plans to expand its programs. It is currently revamping some of its degree programs and adding new ones to the five majors it offers that align better with career opportunities. For example, the college realized its information technology (IT) and business administration degrees were too general and not drawing students’ interest. So it created additional programs in networking, cybersecurity and international business.

The college is also developing a secondary education track in response to a teacher shortage in New York City and a health information technology program in response to high labor market demand.

The revamping is part of a broader effort Guttman is embracing through its Career Innovation Hub. The college’s initial model was to graduate students at higher levels to prepare them for senior-level colleges in the City University of New York (CUNY) system, Johnson says. It has done an exceptional job on this, “But what about the students who need to go to work after two years and no longer further delay their earning of a sustainable wage?” asks Johnson, who notes that IT is the only associate of applied science degree program at the college that leads to work.

That question has led Guttman to explore how it can better prepare those students by expanding its offering such as certificate programs, course-based internships, classes on weekends and even possibly allowing students who have jobs to attend part-time. The changes are based on feedback from local businesses and other organizations that help Guttman keep close tabs on local economic and workforce needs and shifts, Johnson says.

“As we are going through this new strategic planning process, we are looking at labor market data from the City University of New York. We are looking regionally in partnership with many of our community-based organizations, as well, to determine how we can serve them, what programs would support their participants. But most importantly, as we are forecasting the job market, how can Guttman be a contributor to that,” he said.

As part of its first phase to roll out the Career Innovation Hub, Guttman will launch inaugural programs in cybersecurity and networking in fall 2023. In the second phase from spring 2023 to fall 2024, the center will kick off a set of certificate programs and courses in computer programming, project management, community health worker and case management. The framework is designed for a smooth transfer of credits from certification programs to existing and planned degree programs at Guttman, as well as at many CUNY institutions, according to college officials.

An eye on equity

Guttman will continue to embed equity in its plans, according to the college. As a Hispanic-serving and minority-serving institution, the Manhattan college has included diversity, equity and inclusion efforts for several years. Guttman already has a program called United Men of Color that serves to provide an inclusive and supportive space where men of color can receive academic support, mentoring and have the opportunity to engage in social-cultural dialogue. It is part of the larger CUNY Black Male Initiative umbrella.

However, as Guttman has disaggregated data, officials have seen a trend that is appearing at many other community colleges across the country: fewer men of color are enrolling. Even prior to the pandemic the numbers were declining, but it has been accelerated due to the pandemic, according to recent national studies.

Johnson says colleges such as Guttman need to find new ways to retain students and help them succeed, especially among groups that are seeing sharp declines. It’s an area the college will focus on over the next few years.

“What do we do with select populations where we are not seeing much success, even with a very high-touch model?” Johnson says.

Guttman is moving in other ways to help foster equity, including hiring and training staff and faculty not only to address race-based issues, but also sexual orientations and gender identities and expressions, according to the college.

New leader, new direction

Johnson’s tenure at Guttman began at a crucial time for the college. He is meeting the task to adapt the school to the demands of the evolving economic landscape with experience and enthusiasm. At his previous institution, Phoenix College, Johnson developed similar workforce-centered programs and increased enrollment.

CUNY Chancellor Félix V. Matos Rodríguez said, “I was proud to appoint President Johnson to lead Guttman earlier this year. The college and its students will benefit from his 20 years of impactful leadership and advocacy for students of color as well as his personal perspective as a product of HBCUs. He has already begun to crystallize the college’s upward momentum, particularly in the areas of career engagement and workforce development, and he will undoubtedly extend and expand Guttman’s future success.”

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.