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Regents should (mostly) hold line on admissions

To understand better the poor judgment Louisiana State University Baton Rouge used in relaxing its admission standards, it’s helpful to understand the context of university admissions and concerning those students granted exceptions – a task the Louisiana Board of Regents will undertake.

First, clearly LSU violated Regents’ policy, which states that only four percent of admitted students could come in as exceptions. LSU reported the class of 2018, judged by the surreptitiously relaxed standards that did not automatically reject those with an American College Test score of 22 and a grade point average of 3.0/4.0 and 19 core hours, contained nearly twice that proportion of exceptions.

The Regents have launched audits of admissions in all senior institutions, where they will find LSU’s transgression. Then they may choose whether to penalize LSU or to accede by adjusting downwards the standards.

For its part in trying to prompt the latter outcome, LSU has compiled statistics about the exceptional class. That cohort has an average ACT score of 21.3 and GPA of 2.9, so it doesn’t fall too far below the minimums. Further, of the recent past excepted classes – about half the size as that of 2018 – they had graduation rates below only the cohort of non-exceptional LSU students and Louisiana Tech University graduates.

Of course, that fact admits the exceptional students succeed at a lower rate than the others at LSU. Further, that around 15 percent in the past were student-athletes who would have access to extensive study assistance unavailable to typical students (with LSU in its major sports facing severe pressures to graduate these students or face National College Athletic Association sanctions) distorts those statistics upwards.

More importantly, that difference between cohorts subverts the LSU argument. It claims that its “holistic” approach better captures student capabilities, compensating for things like fewer resources available in some high schools, personal adversity, and later blooming – in other words, producing a student as capable as those admitted regularly. Yet the lower graduation rate belies that, and likely those students also have a significantly lower GPA.

This is a crucial point. If, as the Regents intended, LSU serves as a “flagship” school intended to provide the most intellectually-challenging education, it dilutes this mission by intentionally admitting in too great of numbers students that will succeed less. The Regents will have to decide whether more than 4 or 7.5 percent represents an excess that degrades flagship status.

There may be some wiggle room. Of the 433 admitted by exception for 2018, 82 came from states without an equivalent or better core course requirement and 20 were international. But 195 simply didn’t meet the 3.0 GPA requirement, which in this era of rampant high school grade inflation (47 percent of graduating students average at least a 3.5, although in some cases a GPA is calculated by adding premium points for taking supposedly harder classes) means less than mediocre achievement.

Factor in as well that LSU standards themselves already are so relatively low that these hardly qualify as selective in admissions. LSU accepts roughly three-quarters of its applicants and has an average ACT of 26. Compare that to the flagship school of the state of Texas, the University of Texas Austin (sorry, Aggies), which also touts holistic admission but accepts only 36 percent of its applicants in part because 75 percent of the admitted class score at least a 26 on the ACT (over half score above 30). In other words, LSU’s level of standards already mimics holistic admissions, so why water things down further?

Finally and importantly, students that wouldn’t make it into LSU because of rigid enforcement of the 4 percent cap have plenty of higher education options and career opportunities from these. Attending another Louisiana public institution can set up a student just as well if he takes advantage of it. To put it another way, a middling achiever at LSU probably has a better opportunity for career success than a similarly-situated student at another school, but there’s no real difference between the capabilities and drive of outstanding achievers at LSU and at other state schools.

Perhaps LSU has an argument concerning the exceptional out-of-state and international students. Given a Louisiana educational system among the poorest in quality (even if improving) in the nation, not having all of the 19 core hours or a sub-3.0 GPA might still make the typical out-of-state student more capable than the typical 3.0 Louisiana student with the hours. So perhaps the Regents could set a standard of two percent for such students, and four percent for all others.

However, that’s as much leeway as the Regents should allow. Except for that, LSU really has no case on this issue.

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