The Impact of Holistic Admissions

LSU finds increased diversity with its first class using a new system. But not everyone is applauding the switch.

December 3, 2018
 
Students at LSU

The holistic approach to admissions -- in which students are evaluated based on a review of their entire background, not on a formula based on grades and test scores -- has been in the news lately. Harvard University is facing a suit charging it with discriminating against Asian Americans in admissions, but Harvard points to its use of holistic admissions to explain why some Asian Americans are rejected in favor of other students who may have lower grades and test scores.

Harvard is among the most competitive colleges in the country, if not the world, when it comes to college admissions. But holistic admissions is used widely at other institutions. And when a college shifts from a formula for admissions to holistic admissions, the impact may be particularly visible. That's the case this fall at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, which just started using holistic admissions. The university says the shift has been a success and that it has admitted an academically strong class with significantly more diversity than the university saw under the old system. But the university is being accused of watering down standards and is feuding with the Louisiana Board of Regents (a statewide coordinating board) over whether LSU had the authority to shift to holistic.

Under the Board of Regents requirements, LSU was supposed to admit only students with a 3.0 high school grade point average or a 25 ACT composite score. Up to 4 percent of the class could be exempt from that requirement. Those requirements hardly place LSU in the most competitive category for flagships in its region. At the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, for example, the average high school GPA of freshmen this fall was 3.71, and 40 percent of students had at least a 30 on the ACT.

The new holistic admissions policy states that the university will "take an in-depth look at your transcript to evaluate rigor of curriculum, grade trends, and course selection all within the context of your high school." Further, it states that "we carefully consider every student who applies to LSU. We seek to attract academically gifted students, as well as students who show promise and potential for college success."

LSU is calling the new system a success, and the vast majority of admitted students far exceeded the minimums set by the Board of Regents.

The class this fall had 5,803 freshmen, up from the previous high of 5,725 the year before. Despite increasing class size, LSU's freshmen had a mean GPA in high school of 3.5 (the same as under the old system) and a constant ACT mean as well, at 26.

Holistic admissions had a major impact on the enrollment of minority students, who last year made up 21.6 percent of freshmen and this year make up 30.9 percent of freshmen. (Louisiana is about 65 percent white, with most others being African American).

Minority Students in LSU Freshman Class

  2017 (old system) 2018 (holistic) % change
Black 591 894 +51.3%
Hispanic 312 432 +38.5%
Asian 196 287 +46.4%
Multiethnic 105 143 +36.2
Native American 26 37 +42.3%

LSU is seeing these gains even though race and ethnicity are not factors that are considered in the holistic review (as they are at Harvard and many other institutions).

Jose Aviles, vice president for enrollment management, said many of those who might have been admitted in previous years were put off by cutoff scores that appeared exclusionary. "Students can see themselves at LSU, and not simply a cutoff score where certain groups of students might self-select not to even apply," he said.

But the university is facing some criticism that it has "lowered standards" with holistic admissions.

Charles A. Whitehurst, a professor emeritus of engineering and an alumnus of LSU, wrote in a recent letter in The Advocate that the shift was moving the university "in the wrong direction." He said that people who care about LSU should oppose any move to admit those who don't meet the old minimum admissions requirements.

"Lowering admission standards in any way is wrong, and indicates a leaning toward progressive liberalism," he said. "The university must maintain a level of independence from ideological trends and political expediency."

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