LSC-Montgomery’s president chats about her job and college strategies going forward
Rebecca Riley has a seat at the table of Houston’s largest higher education institution and one of the fastest-growing community colleges in the nation.
As the Lone Star College-Montgomery campus president, Riley sat down with The Villager to talk about her job’s joys and challenges, how students have changed and what’s on the horizon for the campus.
QUESTION: Tell us a little bit about how you got to be here?
RILEY: It’s a really long story, but I started my Lone Star career as a part-time instructor in the art department at Lone Star College-Kingwood. I think that was in 1994. A year or so later, the vacancy for the full-time position came up in art, and I applied for that and got it. I became the program coordinator for art. A few years after that, the associate dean position came open. I applied for that and got it, and about six weeks later they had a big reorganization and all the associate dean positions went away. We got to reapply for our jobs, and that’s what I did. I became a dean.
It wasn’t so much that I had that ambition to keep going up in the hierarchy, but I knew that if I wanted to keep going, I would need to get my doctorate degree. I went to Sam Houston (State University), and got that and finished in 2007. I became a vice president and ended up over here in 2015. I’ve been with Lone Star for a very long time, but started as a faculty member.
QUESTION: What has drawn you to stay so long?
RILEY: This is a great place to work. You’re never bored here, and through all the administrations that I’ve worked under, I’ve been really fortunate. I’ve always seemed to have the freedom to be creative and to be innovative and involve others in trying new things. That’s part of what keeps me satisfied at work, so why would you leave that?
QUESTION: What’s your favorite part about working here?
RILEY: There are so many things that I like about this job, and that I’ve liked about all the jobs that I’ve had at Lone Star. At this point in time, some of my favorite things are working with really committed and dynamic people all around me. You’ll find that people really care about what they’re doing. They’re committed to seeing that students get the best opportunities they can. That’s a really satisfying work environment to be in.
It goes back to the ability to innovate and be creative. I feel like I have that opportunity here, and I get to tie what we do into a lot of other things, like what’s going on in workforce and into the community, or like what’s going on in public policy. Whether it’s at the state or national level, Lone Star is big enough that being part of this organization lets you sit at the table in some of the public policy and legislative decision-making processes that go on.
QUESTION: What’s the most challenging aspect?
RILEY: One of our challenges is always stretching resources. When you’re growing, you have to stretch resources to maintain service levels. That’s always a challenge, but we’ve become incredibly efficient at the same time. Since I’ve gotten here, our cost-per-student has actually gone down in terms of delivering a credit hour. We’re meeting that challenge of stretching our resources.
I’d say other challenges include innovating to meet the demands of students today. Students today have different challenges and are different from students 10, 20, 30 years ago. They have different needs in order to succeed.
QUESTION: At the last LSC system board meeting, you spoke about the “typical-atypical” college student. Explain what you mean by that and how you see that demonstrated on campus.
RILEY: For many people who went to college in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, the profile of a college student was a younger age, fresh out of high school. In the earliest part of that historical block that I’m talking about, college student bodies were predominately white, they were usually residential students, they went to a four-year college and stayed in a dormitory and mom and dad were the ones paying for college, if not the GI bill. So the mindset of a college student is different in that kind of scenario than the way it looks today.
The majority of our students are part-time, and we are not a residential college, so that means their lives are very much balanced between going to school here, working part-time or full-time and caring for children, spouses or elders. As a percentage of household income, the cost of college has gone up significantly over the years, so the financial challenges for students now are very different than they were not even 25 years ago.
So all of those things contribute to a different profile of the student body. Our average age for a student here at LSC-Montgomery is 26 or 27. The biggest block of students are still 18 to 24, but a huge number of our students are in that 24 to about 28 age group. So that means those students have either delayed going to college in the first place, or they may have been in the military or starting a family. Or, they had to stop and are coming back. They have a whole different set of challenges with the balancing act they’re doing between all their obligations. In terms of academic support and psychosocial support for students, what is needed for students in those situations is very different than the 18-year-old who does not have to worry about the bills and live on campus. Not that those students don’t have their challenges too, but it’s different.
QUESTION: Has that changed the way you’ve done things here? Give us a specific example.
RILEY: Yes. All of our students, unless they are only enrolled in a Certificate Level 1, enroll in a course called Education 1300. It’s a college success course. They enroll in that typically in their very first semester of college. That helps them sort through career options and interests and aptitudes. It helps them understand their finances, the idea being so many students incur debt when they go to college. We want to help them think very carefully about those options. It also helps them learn study skills and time management skills. It also, most importantly, gets them connected to all kinds of services on campus. They have to do a lot of group activities, so by the time they’re done with that course they at least have a little handful of friends here if they didn’t know anybody before. Those connections become really important.
Attached to each one of those courses is an adviser. That adviser helps make sure that every student in that course, by the time they’re finished, have a degree plan mapped out through completion. It helps people stay on track better. Especially when you’re juggling a lot of things, that becomes really important.
QUESTION: Tell me about the Magnolia Satellite Center that is planned to be under your discretion.
RILEY: Right now we have the Conroe center up in Conroe that is attached to this campus. So this will be our second center. It’ll be located over in Magnolia, near the Magnolia West High School. It’ll be similar to the Creekside Center in The Woodlands. I don’t know if it’ll look just like that, but it’ll be similar. It’s usually a combination of workforce and academic transfer programming.
What we do for programming at a center is a lot of community listening sessions and labor market research to make sure that whatever we do there is closely tied to the workforce needs of the community. There’s not a lot of heavy industry in the Magnolia area that would make an obvious indicator of what should go over there. LSC-Tomball college is not that far away, and they have a robust health occupations program over there. We probably wouldn’t replicate those programs 10-15 miles away.
What we are thinking about in terms of programming for that center is the proximity of that center to Texas A&M and opportunities for degree completion that students would have. When you think about that together with the high-performing status of the high schools in Magnolia, it makes us think a little more about programming in the STEM areas as a possible area of focus out there. Community listening sessions and labor market research will also inform that. The center’s land purchase is happening now and the architect programming and planning will start to happen in late 2019 or early 2020.
QUESTION: If you could pick one or two broad goals for this campus, what would they be?
RILEY: On this campus, we have some key results that we are working toward. They include improving our course success and completion rates, our persistence rates from one semester to the next and our graduation rates. We have specific goals around each of those things. Those are tied to our key performance indicators that we have across Lone Star, but specifically for Montgomery that’s where our focus is right now. We’re really zeroing in on persistence right now. The success and completion feeds into that, and persistence feeds into graduation rates.
More broadly speaking, we’re working on a number of new programs and innovations. The aviation program in Conroe is one, and the bachelor of science in nursing is a system-wide program that will start at Montgomery. If we get both of those things going and successful, boy, that’ll be amazing.
One of the things we’re exploring and working on is how we can tie the workforce needs, especially in the northern part of our service area in Conroe, to both the K-12 and community college programs. Labor shortage is a huge issue for manufacturing, for oil services industries, for a number of other industries in this area. Conroe is an extremely attractive place for companies looking to relocate, but we have to make sure that it stays that way by contributing to the workforce development.
QUESTION: What do you like to do in your free time?
RILEY: I’m a pretty faithful gym rat. I’d rather be outside anytime than inside, so I like being outdoors. Even if it’s working in the yard, it’s a very grounding — literally — process for me. I go back to my arts roots and paint, work on things like that. And spend time with my husband, he’s pretty sweet.