President's Reception -- With Gov. John Bel Edwards, left, at the LSU President's Reception during the 21st annual LSU Salutes festivities Nov. 5 are Susan and Richard Lipsey, past president of the Cadets of the Old War Skule.

Sometime during the 14th straight day sandblasting rusting metal in the Gulf, I soured on offshore work.

On my next day off, I drove to Baton Rouge from south Lafourche Parish, applied to LSU, signed up for classes, paid the fees and was admitted before lunch. An indifferent student, at best, a high school diploma was all that was necessary to start down the road to a better life.

As far as the new life thing goes, opening a restaurant would have come close to having a similar outcome as attending LSU — 59 percent of restaurants fail, only about 47 percent of LSU students graduated in the early 1980s, meaning 53 percent failed to receive a diploma.

That graduation statistic launched a debate spanning generations over how admissions policies define the role of higher education in Louisiana.

After 125 years of admitting all comers, at least the white ones, then-LSU Chancellor Jim Wharton set off a firestorm in 1985 by setting rigid minimum requirements that selected only higher performing students. Last week when LSU’s quiet move to relax those standards became public, the debate flared up again.

LSU President F. King Alexander defended the move toward a more “holistic” approach of looking harder at essays, recommendations and life experiences as a way to keep attracting the best students. High schoolers who perform poorly on standardized tests but otherwise demonstrate scholarly prowess had been, with some narrow exceptions, summarily rejected admission. Having failed to gain entrance into LSU, they’re not going to in-state universities, like the University of New Orleans or the University of Louisiana in Lafayette, they’re heading out of state because most of the nation’s universities already have moved to “holistic admissions.”

Having experimented with the concept on the incoming class, LSU is going all in for the fall of 2019. High school seniors seeking a slot will have to send the essays and recommendations on the front end of the application process. Alexander says this year’s crop of freshmen has the highest ever grade-point averages and scored about 26 on the ACT, well above the national average of 20 on a test that tops out at 36. The graduation rate is now 67 percent.

Board of Regents member Richard Lipsey, perhaps the most vocal opponent of the move, argues that reducing the emphasis on ACT college board test scores will water down qualifications, thereby endangering LSU’s flagship status and provide cover for admitting less-qualified children of the elite by way of political influence.

Lipsey says Alexander’s bragging about freshmen prowess proves that hard ACT scores work and don’t need fixing.

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“He’s literally trying to take credit for what Dr. Jim Wharton did so long ago, while trying to dismantle it,” Lipsey said Thursday.

Wharton’s efforts to install admission standards — and change LSU’s mission — caused an uproar in the 1980s.

“I remember it well. John McKeithen just about had a heart attack,” Lipsey said.

Former Gov. McKeithen, as a member of the Board of Supervisors, said in April 1985 that Wharton’s admission standards were anti-egalitarian and violated LSU's tradition as a poor man's university, a place where any Louisiana youngster, no matter how humble his parentage, can get a college education.

The measures passed and in September 1999, then-Chancellor Mark Emmert raised the required ACT test score.

“There’s a growing national evidence that increases in admission standards, increases applications,” Emmert said at the time. “That’s because it’s a clear signal that academic standards and the quality of the university are moving up, and that makes it more attractive to people.”

In 2001, the Board of Regents, which oversees all the public universities in Louisiana, proposed arranging the state’s four-year institutions into tiers with progressively more difficult minimum entrance requirements. Southern University enrollment dropped 7 percent.

“The idea is not to have fewer people go to college. The idea is to have more students go to college and succeed when they get there,” T. Joseph Savoie, then commissioner of higher education, said at the time.

J. Stephen Perry, who until Friday chaired the LSU board, said times have changed and Alexander’s adoption of holistic admissions accomplishes similar goals. The college board entrance exams have been widely criticized for helping families who put an emphasis on college — those who take their kids to museums, read to them, and push academic pursuits. But a do-or-die test score disadvantages students from poorer families and those with disabilities or family crisis whose academic aptitudes can be picked up with closer scrutiny of other factors allowed under holistic review.

“It ensures that the university has every tool with which to evaluate every student’s potential to excel and not just rely on binary digits of academic proficiency,” Perry said last week.

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.