MAXWELL:  Let black students measure up

5/18/1996 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Even when it tries to do the right thing, Mississippi _ a contemporary symbol of all that is wrong with the South _ winds up in the national spotlight for the wrong reasons. In trying to comply with a Supreme Court order to dismantle its dual higher education system, one black and one white, officials have stirred undue controversy.

In 1992, parents of several black students attending the state’s three historically black universities filed a lawsuit charging that officials spent more on the mostly white institutions. This suit became part of an ongoing 20-year-old court order to desegregate the university system. To equalize spending systemwide, a federal district judge ordered, among other provisions, white and black schools to implement a single standard for students applying to state colleges. Until then, the black institutions required lower standardized test scores and lower grade point averages for admission.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal opposing the ruling, implemented last year, that equalizes admission standards. Because the court did not take action, black students applying to Jackson State, Mississippi Valley State and Alcorn State must have the same scores on American College Test and the same grade point averages upon graduating from high school as do white students applying to the traditionally white universities. The federal judge in the case has included several ways for low-achieving students to attend college provisionally.

Even with these safeguards, critics claim that the new policy will prevent many blacks from attending college. They are right. Even in the 1990s, the three historically black schools enroll more than 60 percent of the African-American students in the state’s public universities. The overwhelming majority of these students come from low-income families and substandard classrooms. They cannot immediately compete with their wealthier white counterparts enrolling at the University of Mississippi, Mississippi State and Southern Mississippi.

Black students are not intellectually inferior. The ugly truth is that their state has cheated them, and now it wants to toss them _ without preparation _ into direct competition with white students with far better schooling. The legal quandary remains, however: The court has ordered a single standard for admission, and black students must measure up or fall away.

The new standard, in force while it was before the Supreme Court, has been blamed for sharply reduced enrollment at the three black institutions and deep cuts in millions in federal funds. Indeed, Mississippi is changing, and part of that change must be eradicating the humiliating stigma that the historically black schools are inferior and that their students, too, are inferior. The biggest problem is failing to phase in the standard over a few years, thereby giving the students adequate time to prepare.

But prepare they must, as David Sansing, a retired history professor at the University of Mississippi told the New York Times: “I hear the plaintiffs saying this is going to destroy undergraduate programs at Jackson State. I said to myself, I wish they’d said, “It’s going to be tough, but these black kids can do it; they’ve overcome more than standardized tests, and they’ll buckle down and score higher.’ The world is so much more competitive these days. Kids just have to achieve more.”

Now that the new standard is the law, everyone, especially blacks, must set aside the defeatism and try to find ways to help black students prepare for the toughest academic challenge of their young lives.

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.