Analysis: Dispute on Louisiana College Admissions Escalates

Photo from LSU Facebook Page

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Bickering about a few hundred college students at Louisiana State University has mushroomed into a far larger quarrel about lines of authority in state higher education and the autonomy of individual campuses.

The conflict began when LSU President F. King Alexander decided to lessen the use of minimum admissions criteria for first-time students without initially announcing the changes publicly or first getting the official backing of his university system board or the Board of Regents that oversees all higher education policy in Louisiana.

As scrutiny grew, including from Regents' board members, Alexander dug in. He said the Regents don't have the authority to penalize LSU for violating their minimum admission standards and granting more exceptions than are allowed.

That suggestion drew a rebuke from Gov. John Bel Edwards, who said the higher education community should be collaborating, not questioning who's in charge.

"It would be much better for the state, I think, if you didn't have all this playing out in the media, but you actually had higher education leaders sitting down and talking to one another," the Democratic governor said on his monthly radio show.

Edwards added: "Anytime you get the LSU president questioning the authority of the Board of Regents to enforce a policy that it has adopted, I think it's just unfortunate. We can do better than that."

Alexander's comments were reminiscent of years-ago disputes among higher education leaders, including disagreements about authority when the Regents set the first statewide college admissions standards in 2001.

For first-time students entering this fall, LSU reduced its reliance on standardized test scores and grade point averages. The changes drew criticism and prompted a Regents audit of university admissions across the state to determine if schools are obeying the rules.

Speaking to the Press Club of Baton Rouge last week, Alexander described college admissions criteria as a "recommendation from the Regents," rather than a requirement.

Louisiana Commissioner of Higher Education Kim Hunter Reed disagreed, citing the board's constitutional authority: "I don't think compliance with Regents' policy is optional."

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

Alexander acknowledged LSU breached the Regents' limit of exceptions in its student admissions this fall, with about 295 out of the 5,800 entering freshmen on LSU's main campus not meeting the minimum standards generally required of first-time students.

He defended the approach as following admissions policies at 80 percent of the nation's flagship universities and LSU's freshman class as one of the university's best-performing groups ever. He cited examples of high-achieving out-of-state students who don't meet Louisiana's core curriculum requirements, rural students who only get one opportunity to take the ACT and students whose high school years were disrupted during the 2016 floods as those who deserved consideration outside of the minimum criteria.

"We didn't lower any standards. We just took a closer look at a lot of kids that deserve a little bit closer look because they're from different circumstances," Alexander said. "We're just doing what the rest of the country is doing."

At its meeting this month, the LSU Board of Supervisors passed a resolution supporting the new "holistic admissions" approach that Alexander already had been using. And LSU isn't the only school that appears to have granted more exceptions than allowed under the admissions criteria.

Alexander, however, is the only higher education leader to publicly challenge the Regents' authority on the matter. That approach seemed unnecessary since Reed already agreed with Alexander's broader point that the Regents should revisit the minimum admissions criteria and consider adjustments.

Edwards also said the conversation about tweaking admissions standards was a worthy one – but he added that those talks didn't need to come with public confrontation.

"If there is a better way to govern the admissions process today than was the case 20 years ago and we can learn from the experience of other states, we ought to be sitting down and doing that collaboratively," he said.


By AP reporter Melinda Deslatte 

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