LSU's Tiger Stadium and Memorial Tower can be seen east, looking west, of University Lake at dusk, Wednesday, September 26, 2018, in Baton Rouge, La.

Though the head of LSU argues that the university’s change in admission criteria is leading to an academically stronger class, the percentage of “exceptions” to the set standards were almost double the level the state’s higher education board allows.

LSU President F. King Alexander wrote Commissioner for Higher Education Kim Hunter Reed that 7.5 percent of the freshman students who entered LSU last month scored lower on college board tests and had lower grades than the minimum admission standards set by the Board of Regents.

Regents allow 4 percent of LSU’s incoming class to come from applicants who failed to meet the admissions standards. Other public colleges have leeway to except 6 to 8 percent of its freshmen from Regents criteria.

Reed is taking a wait and see approach to the news in Alexander’s correspondence.

The Regents have embarked on an audit of all 14 of the state’s four-year colleges to identify and count the students being “admitted by exception.” Only then will the Regents determine whether the admission rules need to be changed or whether schools taking too many students without the proper credentials need to be punished.

“Once we have actual data, that is no longer preliminary, such as what was shared in the letter, Regents will discuss the audit findings, the implications for student success and the appropriate response to any deviations from our policy,” Deputy Commissioner for Strategic Communication Meg Casper Sunstrom said in prepared statement for Reed.

Under the Regents minimum admission standards, first-time freshmen had to take in high school 19 credits of core courses, such as English, math and science. They also need to exceed either a minimum grade point average or a minimum ACT composite score.

LSU requires the 19 core course credits plus both minimum GPAs and ACT results – currently set at a 3.0 grade point average and a 22 out of 36 ACT score.

When LSU officials quietly embarked on trying out “holistic admissions” policies, they did so saying they could accept students with either a lower GPA or a lower ACT and still comply with the Regents 4 percent exception rule.

Critics say relaxing minimum test scores and GPAs will lead to admitting unprepared students who could slow the education of others and could undermine LSU’s flagship status.

Alexander counters that most major universities are using the holistic method to shape their incoming freshmen classes because the policy identifies smart students who don’t fit in the tidy box of rigid scores and grades.

“The holistic review process includes a ‘deeper dive’ into course selection, rigor, persistence, grit and other variables that can assist in the prediction of a student’s success,” Alexander wrote Reed on Sept. 23.

Alexander argued that if the students LSU admitted by exception since 2011 were in their own college, their 48 percent graduation rate would put them at the third highest after LSU and Louisiana Tech.

Holistic admissions allow LSU to admit more demographically diverse students, as well as students from other states who pay higher tuition than Louisiana residents. The LSU Board of Supervisors recently approved the shift from set-in-stone GPA and ACT minimums to a more holistic approach.

But holistic also means many more students who don’t meet the Regents’ minimum standards will be admitted.

Among the 5,809 freshmen LSU enrolled this fall – the largest and academically strongest in its history, averaging a 26 ACT score and a 3.5 GPA – 433 students were admitted by exception, Alexander wrote.

The exceptions averaged a 21.3 on the ACT and had a grade point average of 2.9, Alexander wrote. The Regents’ rules would have LSU summarily reject all but 4 percent, or 232, of those 433 applications.

Eighty-two of the excepted Fall 2018 admissions came from other states that didn’t require students to complete 19 credits in core courses. Twenty others were international students and 32 were athletes.

The largest contingent were the 195 students who did not meet LSU’s 3.0 GPA requirements.

Students dealing with personal trauma during their high school years, such as divorce, death, or flooding, often see their grades drop. And in some cases, the students started poorly, but developed into superior students as they matured, Alexander wrote.

Almost 19 percent of the students admitted by exception are the first in their families to attend college, two thirds came from public high schools and 57 percent studied in rural high schools, which often don’t have the similar resources as urban and suburban schools. One third of the students were low income Pell Grant recipients, he wrote.

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.