Greg Johnson
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Greg Johnson

Executive Director, Bottom Line

Let's start with some statistics. Nine out of every ten new jobs requires a college degree, and the wage difference between a high school diploma and a bachelor's degree can reach as high as $800,000 over the course of a lifetime. Nationally, 79% of high-income high schoolers continue directly to college, compared to 49% of their low-income peers. Among college students, 75% of students from high-income households graduate. Less than 9% of students from low-income families do.

Clearly, getting into college is only one of the challenges confronting disadvantaged youths. A bigger one is staying there through graduation. That is the mission of Bottom Line, a Boston-based nonprofit organization with a satellite office in Worcester, Mass., and a second scheduled to open this summer in New York City.

It is also the mission of its Executive Director, Greg Johnson.

From top university to Bottom Line

It was not a line of work Greg initially imagined he'd wind up in. Growing up in Enfield, Conn., a sleepy town located roughly halfway between Boston and New York, he attended public high school and went directly on to Brown University. "I went in thinking I'd be a chemist," he says. "But I realized that sitting in a lab is not where I wanted to be." He found himself attracted to the social sciences instead, and he praises Brown for an educational style that "allows people to find their own path."

That path first led to Springfield, Mass., just up Route I-91 from his hometown, where Greg landed a job as Program Director for an AM radio station and also gained on-air broadcasting experience. He enjoyed the work, but when he and his wife relocated to Boston so that she could attend graduate school, he found it next to impossible to break into local radio.

It turned out to be a big break for him—and for the students he has helped prepare for a more successful future. His first job on this career path was with The Princeton Review, where he began teaching classes to help students "from all walks of life" prepare for the math SAT—or, as he puts it, "beat the test." Over the next seven years, he rose through the ranks, eventually becoming the Director of Marketing for Massachusetts and northern New England.

It was through this position that Greg came to the attention of Dave Borgal, who had founded Bottom Line in 1997 to help inner-city high school seniors get college degrees. Greg points out that going from The Princeton Review to Bottom Line represented a reversal in philosophy for him: from getting kids into college to helping them stay there. He became Executive Director in 2003. And for him, it was "an immediate fit."

The potential for growth

Greg points out that there are many barriers for students from low-income households or those who are the first generation in their family to go to college. Many have to earn some income to support the family or help with child care for younger siblings. Many are less prepared academically than their wealthier classmates. And most face financial hurdles. "Our goal is to stay with these students until they finish their college experience," Greg says.

Bottom Line accomplishes this task through what Greg calls "high-touch" personalized one-on-one guidance and mentoring, from helping high school students apply to college right through until they receive their degree. Counselors are full-time staff who maintain consistent support and also refer students to other resources if needed.

Greg had a staff of four when he joined Bottom Line, and he found that his organization—though it had grown exponentially from its first class of 25—could only handle about 200 students at a time. Yet, "kids were walking in off the streets," he recalls. "I figured, there's got to be a way to help more students."

He set about overhauling the way things were done at Bottom Line, from ramping up fundraising efforts to systematizing the services provided, so that more students could be supported in a consistent way—and across a wider geographic territory. "What we had at the beginning was a talented staff," he says. "But I know that's not enough—no matter how talented your staff is. I wanted to take our model of support and standardize the curriculum across the office, so that we could rely less on talent and more on the system."

Today, Bottom Line supports 650 high school students and 947 college students across the state of Massachusetts, with more to follow once the New York office opens.

It is of that expansion that Greg is most proud. He believes that focusing on college retention for low-income and first-generation students is relevant—and important—across the country and that creating a replicable program gives it that portability. Even today, "more students want our service than we can serve," he says. And it's his vision to offer that help to every kid who wants and needs it.

As Greg puts it, "Nothing is more rewarding than seeing a student make it through." Students like the young woman who just entered medical school and is on track to become the first doctor in the 14-year history of Bottom Line. Or students who were brought to this country and then left here by parents who returned to their homeland. Or students who have been on their own since age 17, and look to Bottom Line for the kind of nurturing support every child craves.

Another asset: the Community Advisory Group

Greg himself finds support among his own peers through Grand Circle Foundation's Community Advisory Group, a coalition of leaders from the Foundation and its long-term nonprofit partners in Boston. Greg is a new member of the group, which meets regularly to explore ideas for resolving issues they have in common, including handling budgets and fundraising, developing boards, evaluating programs, coordinating volunteers, and more. Greg notes that many of his colleagues in the group work with youths in the same neighborhoods of Boston from which Bottom Line draws much of its clientele. "They're great organizations," he says. "Our goals are perfectly aligned."

He also appreciates the opportunity to make use of the facilities of Grand Circle Leadership Center in Kensington, New Hampshire. "You can get people thinking creatively much better than in their office," he says of these off-sites. "And the facilities are excellent."

Most of all, the creative solutions Greg seeks are all focused on helping the students in the care of his organization. He is passionate about his work, and it shows. Just look at the statistics: About 80% of Bottom's Line's students graduate from college—the same rate as the general population. And that's the bottom line.

Featured in our February 2011 E-Newsletter. Read the full issue here.