SADOW: The Board Of Regents And The “Holistic Admissions” Fight

Today the Louisiana Board of Regents for Higher Education emulated academia when its mandarins encounter a substantial decision that will trigger controversial change – it punted.

Sounding like students who didn’t realize the gravity of an assignment and so didn’t start working on it until too late, enough members of the Board said they wanted more time to complete the task. By consent, they put off dealing with changes to the implementation and enforcement of admission by exception rules until next month.

This started a couple of years ago when unilateral changes made by Louisiana State University Baton Rouge saw the proportion of its admitted students not meeting entrance standards promulgated by the Board go above its permitted four percent limit. The exceptions cohort graduated at a significantly lower rate, bolstering the argument that they should have attended other state universities with lower admissions bars.

However, existing policy gave the Regents no means by which to enforce the standards that LSU flouted, and publicity surrounding the issue illuminated other related matters. In response, the Board drafted new policy guidelines.

These seem quite reasonable, if not generous. Spread out over about a dozen printed pages, the staff proposal essentially gave schools license to exceed the number of exceptions by up to 100, as well as making uniform the allowable rate at eight percent for non-resident students (it had been four for LSU and six for the three state schools). It also permitted schools beginning in academic year 2021 to ask to raise their exception numbers. Additionally, it made it easier to admit non-resident, particularly international, students not as exceptions.

Finally, it created a sliding scale of penalties for schools going over the limit: in the initial year; a proportionate reduction in the next year’s quota of exceptions; if that spans another year, then withholding the state per student subsidy for each over the limit; and if that persists into the next year, then additional withholding of tuition and fees for each over the limit, essentially making the institution pay for educating these students out of its own coffers. In LSU’s case, that would have meant around $1.6 million clawed back.

The proposal is better than nothing. Changes to non-resident admissions, except for raising every institution’s bar to eight percent, address a genuine problem. The presence of the many loopholes otherwise waters it down, and the penalty doesn’t have a lot of bite, as it will encourage gamesmanship. For example, LSU could go around claiming itself funded $1.6 million less than it actually would be if not for its own choices, while neglecting to add that caveat, as a means of lobbying to reach deeper into taxpayers’ pockets.

Why any regent would hesitate to endorse this lukewarm response, much less claim they need another 30 days to study it, is a mystery. It’s worth a shot to see how it plays out over the next few years, but with an understanding that what transpires likely will show it needs strengthening to prevent egregious and potentially widespread violations of the standards. If the month’s delay will count for anything, it should be to drop most of the loopholes, but that if doesn’t happen, approval next month shows at least tepid fealty to the idea that standards mean something.

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