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A snowy egret sits in the rain atop a cypress tree on City Park Lake Sunday. The LSU Campanile can be seen in the background.

LSU is relaxing a generation-old policy of automatically rejecting applicants who score too low on the standardized entrance exams like the ACT.

Instead, the state’s flagship university will be placing more emphasis on recommendation letters, personal essays and activities outside academia. Though the first in Louisiana to eject hard minimums, LSU is joining a national “holistic admissions” wave that diminishes the importance of tests like the ACT and SAT.

“We’re doing a more profile approach where we’re not going to disqualify for the ACT, but we’re asking the student for more information from the get-go,” said LSU Vice President Jason Droddy, who handles strategic communications and is executive director of policy.

Droddy couldn’t remember who said it first, but he agreed with the concept of better understanding what a student seeking admission “did over four years rather than how he or she did over four hours” needed to take the tests.

The quote Droddy couldn’t remember came from James Nondorf, the dean of admission and financial aid at the University of Chicago, who said it in June when explaining why one of the nation’s top colleges would stop requiring applicants to submit ACT and SAT scores.

More than 1,000 schools in the nation have eliminated standardized testing as an admissions requirement as of January, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

But LSU won’t be among the “test optional” schools, even as admissions officers negate the importance of the exams.

Only the Board of Regents can change the minimum admission standards drawn up in the 1990s as Louisiana public colleges transitioned from accepting everyone to selecting only those likely to succeed in their institution.

Regents organized the state’s four-year colleges into tiers — 10 regionals, three statewide and one flagship — separated by minimum ACT scores or grade-point averages. The state’s two-year community colleges are open to all comers.

The Regents’ regulations allow individual colleges some admissions flexibility. But Droddy said enrollment officials also could thread through the regulations because LSU had installed stricter standards in 1989 — requiring minimum grade-point averages and ACT scores — prior to the Regents’ rules. Basically, LSU is opting for the Regents’ “or” standard.

The scores on the ACT, the college board test most prominent among Southern institutions, range from about 15 to a perfect 36. The national average score is 21. In Louisiana, it’s 19.6, according to the state Department of Education. Incoming Tulane University freshmen averaged 31, according to the National Association of College Admission Counseling.

The average ACT score for incoming LSU freshmen in 2017 was 26, but any applicant who scored below 22 was rejected before LSU looked at anything else on the application even if the GPA was above the 3.0 minimum.

“There is a trend of removing the standardized test scores. They’re not as good at predicting college success,” Droddy said. Test scores don’t properly portray low-income and minority students, those coming from poor schools, or those who have learning disabilities or family problems, or who just don’t test well but otherwise have demonstrated academic perseverance deserving of a closer look.

But the concept is not without controversy.

Some say “holistic admissions” is a subtle avenue to admit the unqualified children of donors and the powerful while limiting the numbers of minorities. Perhaps the highest-profile criticism was filed in a lawsuit earlier this year against Harvard. The plaintiffs argue that nearly twice as many Asian-Americans would be allowed into the prestigious university if the criteria were strictly test scores and grade-point averages.

Droddy counters that may be an issue for elite institutions, but the mission of public colleges is to provide accessibility to all of a state’s residents.

Harvard accepted 5 percent of its applicants in 2017 to fill the limited number of spots available. LSU accepted 76 percent, according to the National Association of College Admission Counseling.

In a state where the bulk of an institution’s revenue comes from tuition, Droddy said he accepts accusations that LSU’s holistic move is a way to increase enrollment by cherry-picking the state’s best and brightest. “The answer is yes,” he said, “and we’re going to keep on doing it.”

As head of the much larger University of Louisiana system, Jim Henderson scoffed, however, at the Baton Rouge-centric mindset that, if given their druthers, all students would choose LSU over other universities or community colleges in the state.

“Anytime you approach admissions, you start with the student and is this institution the right fit for this student. What does the student need? What does the student want?” Henderson said.

He said his son had the grades and test scores to go anywhere but chose the University of Louisiana at Lafayette because he felt it offered specific programs he wanted to study. Plus, he liked the feeling of the campus community, Henderson said.

The nine statewide and regional schools of the University of Louisiana system, some with ACT minimums of 20, have about 90,000 students and continue to grow.

“I don’t think the admissions criteria, as they are now, are too restrictive,” Henderson said. “We’re about access, and the ACT scores are not much of a bar.”

Students attending Southern University choose to come to the historically black university, rather than be relegated to it, said Vice Chancellor Kimberly M. Scott. The university also has several programs that help students from disadvantaged backgrounds get on their feet for the rest of their college career, and that attracts students to Southern as well.

“It’s really the desire to be successful, perseverance and the willingness to work, and those are factors the ACT doesn’t take into account,” Scott said. “There’s a whole lot of conversation out there about holistic admissions because of that, and there’s a move to get rid of the ACT. But that’s a big animal, so that’s not likely to come anytime soon.”

What LSU is doing is a lot like what many colleges around the country have been doing for several years, said Justin Fenske, director of college counseling at the college-preparatory Episcopal School of Baton Rouge.

A good number of Episcopal graduates go to LSU already and he said he is not sure if those numbers would increase because of the change. But many other Episcopal students head out of state for college, where holistic admissions are common, so his staff already has the 100 members of Episcopal’s Class of 2019 preparing essays and gathering recommendations from teachers and counselors.

The public schools, however, needed to start rearranging when LSU informed the high schools of the impending change a few weeks ago. (The counselors will be gathering on the Baton Rouge campus next month to receive details directly from LSU.)

“It’s going to be more work, but being a counselor, well, it’s part of the job description,” said Tirzah Fernandez-Brazier, director of counseling for the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, which last year graduated 2,094 students.

The counselors already were writing some recommendations, but workflow changes are needed to handle the expected increase, she said. “We’ll have to adjust timelines to write more recommendations.”

Despite the extra work, Fernandez-Brazier said she fully supports LSU’s change. “All this does is increase opportunities for our students,” she said.

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.