- Associated Press - Sunday, September 16, 2018

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - When Louisiana set its first statewide college admissions standards in 2001, the then-leader of Louisiana State University described the modest achievement, hailed as a higher education milestone by many officials, as too weak. LSU used tougher standards than the minimums set.

Seventeen years later, leaders of the state’s flagship university reworked its admissions approach. The decision has sparked a high-profile public clash between LSU’s president and one of its most prominent alumni, who also sits on Louisiana’s top higher education policymaking board, the Board of Regents.

And it’s prompting a broader conversation about educational access as Regents is updating Louisiana’s higher education master plan, a new version of which is planned for release next year.

At issue is LSU’s move to a “holistic admission” process that doesn’t solely rely on standardized test scores and grade point averages as the key to admission.

Until this year, LSU required potential incoming freshmen to have a 3.0 high school GPA and a 22 on the ACT college entrance exam to be considered for admission, with limited exceptions.

Now, the university is de-emphasizing those two benchmarks as the primary determiners of entrance. Instead of immediately rejecting an applicant who didn’t achieve the minimum GPA and test scores, campus officials also are considering personal essays, outside activities, recommendation letters and other selling points for students.

LSU President F. King Alexander said in a statement the “modernized” approach mirrors admissions policies at 80 percent of the nation’s flagship universities, helping to recruit “the most academically successful and diverse group of students we’ve ever brought in.” Alexander said two data points alone don’t necessarily show the likelihood of student success, and he noted the average ACT score this year for incoming freshmen remains 26 even with the changes.

But Richard Lipsey, an LSU graduate and businessman who has helped raise millions for the university and sits on the Board of Regents, panned the new policy. He said it rolls back years of high standards, “will produce chaos” and could have the school choosing students because of political and financial influences. Lipsey said Alexander should have vetted the idea publicly.

“Dr. Alexander has not shown the need for it. Give us some numbers. Give us some facts,” Lipsey said. “Tell us why LSU needs to do this. Is it money? Do we need more money? Do we need more students?”

After The Advocate wrote about the admissions change, the dispute exploded onto the newspaper’s editorial pages with traded letters from Alexander and Lipsey, and a group headed by Lipsey slammed the policy and Alexander on social media.

Louisiana Commissioner of Higher Education Kim Hunter Reed, on the job for three months, sees the public quarrel as an opportunity for a broader conversation about ensuring more people in Louisiana have access to higher education.

She stressed that LSU must continue to meet requirements set years ago by Regents.

“I think it is an important conversation to have about where we are and where we are headed,” Reed said. “We are not going back on quality. We are not going back to open admissions.”

Under Regents’ requirements, LSU’s incoming freshmen must have a 3.0 high school GPA or a 25 ACT score, with up to 4 percent of the enrolling class allowed exceptions. Other Louisiana colleges have lower admissions standards and larger percentages of exceptions allowed.

University of Louisiana System President Jim Henderson said most of his campuses use the exceptions policy to admit some students.

“I think you do have to take a holistic look at students,” he said. “At the same time, these objective measures are valuable. They give you an idea of a student’s drive, a student’s aptitude.”

Reed said Regents will audit all public colleges’ enrollment figures to ensure they meet the required standards. She said updates to the higher education master plan “will affirm the admissions framework.”

But she doesn’t object to LSU’s decision to look beyond test scores and grades.

“When Regents adopted the policy, they adopted exceptions. So, obviously there was a conversation about making sure that every institution had an opportunity to look beyond numbers,” Reed said. “I see benefits to the holistic process for everyone, because it is nested in the original 2001 admission standards.”


EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte

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