LSU the least selective flagship in the Deep South

NEW ORLEANS, La. – A new ranking of admissions standards for 109 state research universities places Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, at 53rd, below the flagship universities of all neighboring states. The study’s author contends that Louisiana’s low quality student intake lowers graduation rates, deters potential faculty, and hinders valuable research.

The Higher Education Policy/Research Center study, “National Research Institutional Quality Ranks,” includes at least one taxpayer-funded, four-year university from every state, out of the 518 total. The remaining 59 state universities come from the 2009 top-200 national research ranking of the Center for Measuring University Research Performance.

Author Dr. Harry Stille, a former professor and South Carolina legislator, ranks each university’s freshmen class on account of the 25th percentile SAT or ACT score and the proportion from the top 10 percent of their graduating high school class. The average of the two rankings gives the overall score, which Stille presents alongside other institutional data such as graduation and sophomore retention rates.

The University of California at Berkeley is comfortably in first place with 98 percent of freshmen from the top 10 percent of their high school class and a 25th percentile SAT score of 1250. The University of Virginia, Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of Michigan, and the University of California at Los Angeles round out the top five.

In addition to LSU’s 53rd, Louisiana Tech University is in the 109, tied for 85th place. Both are well out of the top group of 29 institutions that Stille identifies as relatively selective. Nine California and four Florida institutions rank higher than LSU.

Freshmen from Top 10 Percent of Graduating High School Class

The report has broad scope, but its primary assertion is that admissions standards matter for performance outcomes. Stille calculates that his ranking of admissions criteria is more than 90 percent correlated with U.S. News “Best Colleges” rankings. Higher admissions standards, he contends, also save taxpayer dollars which currently go to students who fail to graduate.

“No public senior institution (research, comprehensive, or teaching) is any better than the full time freshmen they enroll over a period of years… When admission scores increase and better students are on campus, they attract better faculty and are able to assist with research.”

Stille cites the University of Florida as one institution that, in recent years, has increased selectivity with its entering freshmen. 77 percent come from the top 10 percent of their graduating high school class, and only 1 percent of its freshmen come from the bottom half.

“Research faculty know the academic level of institutions and want to go to those places. If a nationally renowned researcher had a choice of LSU or the University of Florida, where would he go? Look where Florida is and look where LSU is on this [ranking].”

LSU and La. Tech’s willingness to admit less qualified students contrasts with their peers, particularly the highest performing universities. In the case of LSU, says Stille, “they would do much more if they did not have 17 percent bottom 50 percentile students on campus.”

Freshmen from Bottom Half of Graduating High School Class

Stille also describes four-year graduation rates of less than 50 percent, in his view due to a lack of selectivity, as a “travesty” for a research institution. LSU’s and La. Tech’s four year graduation rates are 28 and 26 percent, respectively.

Kristine Calongne, LSU’s assistant vice chancellor for communications, counters that LSU has the highest admissions standards of Louisiana’s public universities and is a “top tier” college according to U.S. News. She also contends that LSU has doubled its research productivity in the past 20 years.*

“One way to improve both measures [admissions and research] is by changing the financial model to include greater flexibilities for universities – something we will be working toward during this legislative session.”

Calongne acknowledges LSU’s graduation rate as a concern, but she says the university has made great strides in the past 15 to 20 years.

“During that time frame, only one other university in the nation, the University of Maryland, equals LSU’s improvement in graduation rate. But we’d like our numbers to only get better.”

More recently, LSU has begun a special initiative to improve retention and graduation rates, in response to the LA Grad Act. (Click here for the full interview with Calongne.)

Stille hopes his ranking and accompanying data will enlighten debate on higher education funding and policy. Currently, in his view, “the citizens of any state, including Louisiana, are duped when it comes to the value level of their senior institutions.”

“The ‘cheerleaders’ for the institutions tell one story about some meaningless community service/development information and the public never see the real data,” says Stille.

Click here for the full report and here for the ranking (expanded Excel format). Stille (send him email) has also collaborated with the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a non-partisan research organization, to report on how to increase accountability in higher education. The report, “Performance Audit Tools for Higher Education,” came out in September, 2010.

*La. Tech representatives did not respond in time to be included, but here is their complete response.

Fergus Hodgson is the capitol bureau reporter with the Pelican Institute for Public Policy and editor of The Pelican Post. He can be contacted at, and one can follow him on twitter.