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Starting from Scratch: Lessons from Guttman Community College

A growing number of America’s community colleges are redesigning their curricula, advising services, faculty development programs, and relationships with four-year institutions in order to help more students succeed. In most cases, reforms take place within existing operating structures, as gradual processes of cultural and institutional change.

In contrast to institutions that reorganize existing operations around student success, Stella and Charles Guttman Community College, the newest of the City University of New York’s seven community colleges, started with a relatively blank slate. Guttman welcomed its first cohort in August 2012 and currently serves 824 students, with a goal of enrolling 5,000 students by 2025.

In the latest Ithaka S+R case study, Jessie Brown and I discuss how Guttman was designed to incorporate research-based practices for helping first-generation and low-income students at community colleges succeed, and how the institution has progressed in its early years. The evidence, so far, is promising: just under 30 percent of the students in Guttman’s first two cohorts graduated in two years. To put this in perspective, the average two year completion rate at all CUNY community colleges for first-time, full-time students who entered in the fall of 2012 was 6.2 percent.

Two key aspects of Guttman’s model are crucial to explaining the institution’s approach and early successes. First, Guttman’s design intentionally blurs traditional binaries in higher education that separate academic disciplines, teaching from advising, remedial coursework from credit-bearing instruction, and career preparation from the liberal arts. Second, Guttman has embraced a continuous cycle of data collection, learning assessment, and collaborative inquiry to evaluate and refine its model.

Guttman has also faced the growing pains that are inevitable in a start-up environment. Defining faculty roles, workload, and representation in Guttman’s unique organizational structure—which lacks departments and includes every faculty member in a governing council—has been particularly challenging. In addition, Guttman has had to balance its efforts to provide adequate support to its students with the need to ensure that students are prepared to succeed on their own after they leave.

Guttman’s green field approach may lead some readers to dismiss its relevance for existing institutions.  But there is much to learn from the Guttman example.  As a sort of laboratory for testing specific programs and interventions, its experiences can inform similar programmatic changes at other institutions. Guttman’s overall approach—the commitment to research-driven practices, innovative and dedicated faculty, institutional learning, and collaboration—all resemble factors we have observed at other institutions that have successfully organized themselves to improve student outcomes. And more generally, CUNY’s decision to establish Guttman as a new, relatively unencumbered site for wholesale programmatic innovation is a model that other large institutions should consider replicating.

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