By Emily Banks Wooten
“I’m excited to have some people from Lamar State College Orange with us today,” Andy Evans said as he introduced the program Wednesday for the Livingston Lions Club.
“Dr. Tommy Johnson graduated from Livingston High School in the early 80s, began his political career working for Charlie Wilson, retired from the Houston Police Department after 20-plus years, earned five different degrees, got into education and worked his way up from professor to the president of Lamar State College Orange (LSCO). I’m excited about the opportunity he’s going to be bringing here in the very near future,” Evans said.
“It is so good to be here,” Johnson said, pointing out that he wore a green bowtie to speak to the Livingston Lions. “I went to school in Livingston at the old Alamo. Many of you knew my momma and daddy who owned Johnson’s Rock Shop. I want to share with you today a few things we’re going to be bringing to my hometown of Livingston, Texas.”
After showing a brief video of students and faculty from LSCO, Johnson said the goal is transforming lives by obtaining a skill, a trade, a certificate or a degree.
He explained that Lamar University, Lamar Institute of Technology, Lamar State College Port Arthur and Lamar State College Orange were previously part of the Lamar University System until 1995 when they were absorbed by the Texas State University System and then all became individual schools.
“The Texas State University System has an enrollment of 90,000 students at seven colleges and universities with 13 campuses that span 700 miles from the Big Bend region to the Louisiana border. These include Lamar University, Lamar Institute of Technology, Lamar State College Orange, Lamar State College Port Arthur, Texas State University, Sul Ross State University and Sam Houston State University where I graduated from. This morning I got a text from the president of Sam Houston and she said get those Livingston students for two years and then tell them we have a place for them,” Johnson said.
“At Lamar State College Orange, our vision is ‘Where Hope Meets Opportunity’ and our mission is transforming lives. We are committed to skills and crafts,” Johnson said.
“In the fall of 2022 LSCO had the second highest enrollment growth of the 53 two-year colleges in the entire state in credit enrollment and the third highest enrollment growth of the 53 two-year colleges in the entire state in non-credit/workforce enrollment. In the fall of 2023, we surpassed an unduplicated enrollment of 3,000 for the first time in the history of the college, with the previous enrollment record being 2,760 students in the fall of 2011,” he said.
Johnson said LSCO set an all-time record for the number of certificates and degrees awarded – 767 – during the 2022-2023 academic year, representing a 20% increase from the previous academic year.
“There are 53 two-year public schools in Texas. We’re number two in percent growth from the previous year academically and number three in workforce. If somebody wants to drive a forklift or a dump truck, then that’s what college needs to be. We need to stop putting people in a box,” he said, adding that 52% of the LSCO students are enrolled in academic, or university transfer, programs and 48% are enrolled in technical programs.
“We’re not a community college. We’re a two-year college, one of only three. We’re opening one in Lumberton next week and we’re opening one here in Livingston next spring,” Johnson said, adding, “Working with Andy Evans has been wonderful. Our mission is transforming lives.
“I started at Angelina College, a two-year school. I’m going to do everything I can for these kids. I look at the windshield, not the rearview mirror. Since we are not a community college, there is no out-of-district tuition. We offer high quality and low tuition. We’re able to find lots of scholarships. We find them jobs. Seventy percent of our graduates are like me – first generation college students. We want them to succeed and to thrive. The average age of our student is 28, the average GPA is 3.1 and the average class size is 15. We reach out and love on our kids. We care about you individually. We want you to succeed,” Johnson said.
“The legislature is finally getting in tune with the blue-collar folks. The last two sessions I’ve been able to bring in $50 million,” Johnson said, adding that over the last two years LSCO has received $840,000 in grants from the Texas Higher Education System and $480,000 in grants from the Texas Workforce Commission.
Johnson told the story of when the commissioner for higher education in the state of Texas flew in to see him and asked him what his biggest hurdle was.
“I said they’re poor. These kids are poor. They need a little help,” Johnson said.
“We worked really hard. We were able to push through legislation that any kid on reduced or free lunch goes for free,” he said, referring to House Bill 8 which allows students classified as economically disadvantaged to enroll in a dual credit course at no cost to them.
“LSCO is committed to teaming up with federal, state and local government agencies as well as regional school districts, business and industry partners to meet their needs. We want to figure out where the stumbling blocks are and remove the stumbling blocks. We’re meeting the students’ needs instead of the students meeting our needs,” Johnson said.
“I don’t tell anybody about higher education because I don’t know anything about higher education. I listen to business and industry and hear what they need, and I try to provide that. We’ve received over $3 million from private and industrial partner donations during the 2021-2022 academic year and $1.5 million this past academic year. We work closely with the Temple Foundation to educate for livable wage careers in East Texas,” Johnson said.
“This year we were blessed to work with Dr. Hawkins and Livingston ISD on dual credit for both academic and technical via the three two-year Lamars,” Johnson said.
“One of our great successes – and we’re the first college in Texas to do this – a regular semester course is 16 weeks. Around about week 12, students drop out, professors are getting tired. My Provost, Dr. Wendy Elmore, came up with the idea, why don’t we move to an eight-week semester where they take two classes and just focus on those. As a result, the As, Bs and Cs are increasing significantly, and the dropout rates are dropping just as significantly,” he said.
“I don’t focus on 3,000 students. I focus on one student 3,000 times because every one has different baggage,” Johnson said, adding, “I am passionate.”
Johnson introduced Dr. Wendy Elmore, LSCO’s provost and executive vice president, commenting that she does all the work running things because he is usually in Austin meeting with legislators.
“He does have a passion. He has an undying passion and it has been my pleasure and honor the last three and a half years to walk in his shadow. I know there is a big and exciting future in store for Polk County and I am excited to be a part of it. We are very excited. This current semester, we began a partnership with Livingston High School offering dual credit courses,” Elmore said.
She reviewed some of the programs LSCO offers, including welding, culinary, criminal justice, CDL truck driving and bus driving, construction management.
“Since Dr. Johnson has arrived, we have increased the number of technology programs. We have worked hard to establish industry partners to determine what do you need. We’ve added cosmetology, business management, court reporting, electromechanical technology, HVAC, logistics management, massage therapy, real estate, automotive technology,” Elmore said.
“We were selected to be the educational partner for FAME, the Federation of Advanced Manufacturing Education Program. We offer an internship program for our students where an industry partner pays for their education and after completing five semesters, the student will have employment with them at a very good wage. We have a lot of industry partners that have come to us,” Elmore said.
“It is our intent to work together to provide a wide array of opportunities. We’re looking at day and night courses, and post-COVID, online learners. We have really good relations with Sam Houston and the other schools in the Texas State University System,” Elmore said.
In closing, Johnson said, “When we come to Livingston it will not only be Lamar State College Orange, it will be all three two-year Lamars and we will be able to supply Livingston with a great cornucopia of opportunities.”