LSU was not Bailey Tinsley’s first choice when applying to colleges.

“I didn’t want to go to a big school,” Tinsley, a digital advertising senior, said. “I thought to myself, ‘LSU’s a top No. 5 party school every year, with 30,000 kids.’ I was dead set on going to a college in California.”

While Tinsley came to understand the value of an LSU education, the media tend to focus on other aspects. Most of the University’s widespread acclaim comes from football, or from its multiple appearances on the Princeton Review list of the Nation’s Top Party Schools.

LSU returned to the list in 2011, after a three-year hiatus, ranking No. 13 in the top 20. It was also lauded as No. 8 in “students that study the least” and No. 17 in the “lots of hard liquor” category.

Tulane University consistently outranked LSU in almost every partying-related category over the years, and currently reigns as No. 5 on the list for top party schools, whereas LSU does not make an appearance. Still, Tulane often manages to be heralded for its academics, while many students feel LSU’s academics are pushed aside to highlight less favorable aspects. Physics freshman Ashley Patron didn’t originally put LSU at the top of her list, either.

“I was applying to schools out of state because I was originally looking to leave Louisiana,” Patron said. “I went to (St. Mary’s) Dominican (High School), so it’s like my entire high school class was basically copy and pasted to LSU.”

Patron put her hesitations aside and chose LSU after being offered the University’s prestigious Presidential Alumni Scholars Award, annually granted to 10 of the University’s “most promising” incoming freshmen after a rigorous application, essay and interview process. She faced mixed reactions after announcing the final decision to friends and family.

“It is a huge state school, but there’s a lot of really cool things happening there you might not realize,” Patron said.

Regarding LSU’s notorious “party school” reputation, Patron noted her experience might be very different than that of her peers. Her involvement in various on campus activities, as well as a challenging class schedule, keeps her focused on the ultimate purpose of her education.

“Any school can be a party school,” Patron said. “You just go to a party, and now it’s a party school. You have access to that. But you also have access to really pursue what you want.”

Tinsley, a fellow Presidential Scholars’ Alumni Recipient, had a change of heart after visiting campus a few days before Scholars’ Weekend. As a Manship student, he realized most of his classes would have around 20 to 30 students, besides his general education courses. He was also impressed by the University’s Honors College and their investment in seeing him succeed.

“I’m in a fraternity now, so I get the party side, but it’s nice to be able to choose my balance,” Tinsley said.

Coastal and environmental sciences junior Ally Benelli, a Georgia native, surprised a lot of her friends and family members by choosing to go out of state.

“I have a stay-at-home personality,” Benelli said. “A lot of people reacted by saying they never thought they would see me go out of state, or that big.”

Engineering senior and Presidential Alumni Scholars Society president Tanishq Gorbidanur said research opportunities were a major draw for him.

“My main ones were Georgia Tech and the University of Virginia. I was looking at University of Maryland, too, because of their research program.” Gorbidanur said. “But LSU has an amazing research program as well. The professors actually seemed like they cared about me. They also cared a lot about their research.”

Gorbidanur, Benelli, Tinsley and Patron may have ended up at the University under different circumstances, but they all have one thing in common: they received the Presidents’ Alumni Scholar Award. Receiving all-expense paid tuition may be hard to pass up; still, all of the recipients insist while they might have come for the full ride, they stayed for the academics.

However, for some students, LSU’s party school culture can prove to be life-threatening, or even fatal.

University freshman Max Gruver was found unresponsive in the Phi Delta Theta fraternity house on Sept. 14, 2017, following a night of partying and heavy drinking. Gruver was transported to the hospital, but was pronounced dead. Gruver’s autopsy report showed evidence of a highly elevated blood alcohol level and the presence of THC.

Gruver’s death was a result of a hazing ritual known as “Bible study” that took place on Sept. 13 2017. Phi Delta Theta pledges were forced to drink 190-proof liquor after incorrectly answering questions about the fraternity’s history. Phi Delta Theta has been banned from the University’s campus until at least 2033.

A month after Gruver’s death in 2017, University student Benjamin Balser died due to a combination of cocaine, Xanax and alcohol, according to the East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner’s Office’s autopsy. He was the third student to die that semester.

Two former students, Sean-Paul Gott and Ryan Matthew Isto, pleaded no contest to misdemeanor hazing in Sept. 2018. In July 2019, a jury found former student Matthew Naquin guilty of negligent homicide in Gruver’s death.

In 2018, the University implemented a medical amnesty policy, where students involved in drug or alcohol-related incidents that required help from emergency services, under qualifying circumstances, would not be penalized under the University’s Code of Student Conduct. This policy was meant to encourage seeking help in situations like Gruver’s.

In March 2019, EMS were called in at the Kappa Sigma fraternity house when two students needed drug-related medical transports.

Patron agreed the University’s academics tend to be highly underrated in the public perception.

“I’ve been here two weeks, and I’m already very challenged,” Patron said. “The workload is kind of a lot, because I’m in a lot of classes. But it’s classes that I care about, and I’m excited to be in.”

Tinsley said his LSU education helping him succeed during his summer internship at a Dallas advertising agency.

“Everyone says, ‘Oh it’s Mass Communication, it’s a joke, easy classes,’” Tinsley said. “Well, the second day on the job, they sat me down and said, it’s time for the big research phase of this project. Go do it. I sat at my desk and thought, ‘what have I gotten myself into?’”

Then, Tinsley said he thought back to his spring semester, where he had taken a course on research. He realized he had a step-by-step plan on how to do his job from last semester’s class notes.

The course load, in Tinsley’s opinion, is manageable, but provides a great deal of practical application that likely leads to LSU’s high post graduation employment rates.

“It’s not incredibly challenging to the point where I’m crying in my bedroom every night,” Tinsley said. “But it has prepared me to work and prepared me to do my job pretty well.”

Some of the lists LSU currently does rank on include the Payscale 2019-20 salary report for top earnings among public Louisiana schools for early and mid-career earnings. The University also ranks third in the SEC for early-career earnings, behind Texas A&M and the University of Florida.

For 2020, the Wall Street Journal/Higher Education Rankings placed the University No. 84 among public universities. The University was also ranked No. 33 out of 50 flagship institutions. It is No. 71 among public universities nationwide.

For these accomplished students, LSU is more than a backup, a second choice, a ‘safety school.’ Still, some stigmas are hard to escape.

“I’ve heard all the stereotypes,” Tinsley said. “It’s a difficult reputation to change. The only thing people see, when they’re not looking at colleges, is Tiger Stadium. Or the party school scene.”

Another source of scrutiny has been the University’s recently changed admissions standards.

The University’s holistic admissions, implemented in 2018, sparked a heated debate across Louisiana regarding the academic qualifications of incoming students. The policy de-emphasized previous admissions requirements such as a 3.0 GPA and a 22 ACT score. Holistic admissions attempts to define an applicant’s mentality and work ethic over the duration of their high school experience, taking into consideration factors not accounted for in standardized testing and GPAs.

The 2018 and 2019 freshman classes were both the largest in University history. Even with higher enrollment numbers, the average freshman GPA has remained the same.

Patron said in her view, LSU actively competes to bring in better students with more talent so they can win more academic awards. She specifically referenced LSU Adjunct Professor and MIT Professor Emeritus Rainer Weiss, who was one of two recipients of the 2017 Nobel Prize in physics.

“If LSU is changing a lot internally, that’s producing students that are going out and doing more things in the world, and that’s what’s going to change our reputation,” Patron said.

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