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Mississippi mayhem – Mississippi desegregation ruling may harm black college applicants

At this time of year, college recruiters are processing the flood of applications from potential students. But not at Mississippi Valley State University.

Instead, Mississippi Valley officials and their counterparts at Jackson State and Alcorn State universities are wondering what will happen to student enrollments as tougher admission standards are implemented this fall in the aftermath of the U.S. vs. Fordice desegregation ruling.

Under a 1995 ruling by U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers Jr. in the Fordice case, any Mississippi high school graduate with at least a 3.2 grade point average can gain automatic admission to any of the state’s eight public universities.

But gaining entrance into a state-supported university won’t be so simple for others.

Those with at least a 2.5 average will have to score 16 or higher on the American College Test (ACT) or 650 on the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT). Students with a 2.0 grade average must score 18 or higher on the ACT or 740 on the SAT, according to Charles Pickett, associate commissioner for academic affairs of Mississippi’s Institution of Higher Learning.

Students not meeting those requirements are expected to attend a nine-week summer developmental program in math, reading comprehension, writing and study skills — or enroll in one of the state’s 16 community colleges.

Controversy and Confusion

If the new standards had been in place in 1994-95, more than 40 percent of Mississippi Valley students would have fallen into the state’s new “conditional admission category,” says Dr. Roy C. Hudson, vice president for administration at Mississippi Valley.

“Many Black high school kids in this state have borderline scores, lack the academic units they need, lack motivation and come from low socioeconomic backgrounds,” adds Hudson, a product of Mississippi’s public school system. “All it takes is one hurdle for them to walk away. College to them is very iffy. For them to hold out for nine weeks during the summer to see if they will get into college … it’s asking a lot.

“If that 40 percent of students who are trying to get into Mississippi Valley, Alcorn [and] Jackson don’t … we will lose them, period. Not even to a junior college.”

Gene Blakely, director of admissions at Jackson State University, says that students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds often must work during the summer months, allowing little time for summer school or anything else.

Before the judge called for statewide standards, there were separate requirements for the three historically Black and five traditionally white public universities. Black universities required an ACT score of 15 and white institutions an 18.

Maxine Rush, a Mississippi Valley recruiter, says the new standards are unrealistic. “How can you expect a student with a low GPA to have a better ACT score?”

The fear surrounding the raising of admissions standards is unfounded, Pickett maintains. “This is a chance for everybody.”

Students who aren’t academically prepared don’t belong in a university, Pickett adds. When a student enrolls in a four-year institution, “We have some responsibility to teach college-level courses. It’s unfair to students to bring them in without being prepared for college-level work.”

But Hudson says he’s concerned that students who enter college academically prepared and score well on entrance exams “aren’t the ones coming out of public schools, or those with schools that are in receivership or don’t have science and math teachers. You can’t expect these students to automatically score better because they take a summer developmental course.”

For students to fulfill the state’s core academic curriculum, they must now add two additional courses. “Many students weren’t completing the original ones,” says Emmanuel Barnes, dean of admissions at Alcorn State.

`Past Wrongs, Old Money’

University recruiters say they are trying to help guide students by letting them know as early as ninth grade what courses they will need to be admitted into a state-supported university.

For those juniors and seniors who have already received the mountain of glossy admissions catalogues, applications and brochures, university administrators are practicing damage control.

“Here we are, past the middle of February, and we are busy inserting leaflets into bulletins we’ve already printed, talking about changes in admission standards,” says Hudson, who oversaw the printing of more than 5,000 supplemental admissions materials.

Alcorn State President Clinton Bristow Jr. says he is deploying his recruiters throughout southwest Mississippi, while the university’s board of trustees is conducting statewide meetings and community forums, as well as generating print and broadcast advertisements.

“The board has already spent a considerable amount of money that they did not have,” adds Bristow, a relative newcomer to the university and to the legal wrangling surrounding Fordice.

The late Jake Ayers Sr. filed the lawsuit in 1975 on behalf of his son, then a Jackson State student. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1992 that Mississippi’s college system was segregated and remanded the case back to the lower court. To start addressing some of the issues Judge Biggers ruled on in the case, the state’s College Board was seeking $21.2 million.

Biggers also called for a study of Mississippi Valley and nearby Delta State University to determine the future of those institutions. The report is complete, but has not been released by the College Board.

“They [board of trustees] are before the legislature today asking for $7 million to implement new admissions standards — promotions … the summer developmental program. The issue in the state is `How do we pay for the program?'”

Funding for remedial programs as well as for new academic programs and endowments at Jackson State and Alcorn State ordered by Judge Biggers has been tied up in the state legislature. Some legislators argue that funds should not be allocated while plaintiffs are appealing Judge Bigger’s ruling in the 20-year-old case to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.

Recently, however, the state senate voted to issue a $25 million bond for Jackson State University and Alcorn University. The lower house must still act, and legislators continue to wrangle over money for Mississippi Valley.

“The plaintiffs appealing, that’s what the state is hiding behind. The state has to step forward and correct the wrong,” Bristow maintains.

In the meantime, Bristow is resigned to “seeing the silver lining in the dark cloud called new admissions standards.” The new standards mean that “I don’t have a lock anymore on the better students and the marginal students,” he adds.

Bristow’s game plan: competing harder for top students and enhancing Alcorn’s “centers of excellence” — its schools of agriculture, nursing and liberal arts.

Inherent in his plan is new funding, says Bristow. “When you get a judge’s order, you have to implement it, but you don’t correct past wrongs with old money.”

COPYRIGHT 1996 Cox, Matthews & Associates
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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