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In Mississippi, SCOTUS affirmative...

In Mississippi, SCOTUS affirmative action decision is of little public university impact

By: Sid Salter - July 5, 2023

Sid Salter

The Ayers settlement imposed the same admissions standards for all of Mississippi’s eight institutions of higher education – or what came to be called “open enrollment.” That standard is unlikely to be challenged.

The Supreme Court of the United States last week reversed a longstanding precedent allowing race as a college admissions consideration that traces back to the late 1970s and that was reaffirmed in part in the early 2000s. The current case involved admissions practices at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina.

In reaction to the high court decision, Mississippi Commissioner of Higher Education Alfred Rankins Jr. said: “In general, Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning undergraduates are admitted based on completing the college preparatory curriculum in high school, high school GPA, and ACT/SAT score.  In consultation with the Attorney General’s Office, we will review the Supreme Court’s ruling and our general undergraduate, graduate, and professional school admission policies to determine if any changes are needed to ensure compliance with federal law.”

In broad, blunt strokes, Rankins stated Mississippi’s college admissions standards – standards that evolved in great measure out of the settlement of the protracted Ayers higher education lawsuit in the state. In 2002, the state and Ayers plaintiffs agreed to the settlement that would distribute $503 million over 17 years to Mississippi’s three historically black universities – Jackson State University, Alcorn State University, and Mississippi Valley State University.

U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers was in charge of enforcing the Ayers settlement, which imposed the same admissions standards for all of Mississippi’s eight institutions of higher education – or what came to be called “open enrollment.”

Under Judge Biggers’s decision, all Mississippi high school graduates with either a minimum 3.20 grade-point average (GPA) on the College Preparatory Curriculum (CPC) or a minimum 2.50 GPA on the CPC and a composite score of 16 or higher on the American College Test (ACT) or the equivalent Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) score or a minimum 2.0 GPA on the CPC and a composite score of 18 or higher on the ACT or the equivalent SAT score or standing in the top 50 percent of the class and a composite score of 16 or higher on the ACT or the equivalent SAT score.

Mississippi officials challenged the new admissions standards, but the U.S. Supreme Court refused to block their enactment.

For perspective, it’s important to note that the bedrock precedent case in U.S. higher education affirmative action wasn’t decided by the nation’s highest court until three years after the Ayers litigation in Mississippi began.

In 1978, the Supreme Court ruled in the appeal of the case of medical student Allan Bakke against the Board of Regents of the University of California challenging his denial of his application to their medical school. The court ruled, in essence, that using race as one factor in admissions was permissible, but quotas for underrepresented minority groups were not.

Mississippi’s Ayers litigation was filed in federal district court in 1975 by Jake Ayers, Sr., on behalf of his son, Jake Ayers, Jr. The lawsuit accused Mississippi of maintaining an unconstitutional dual system of higher education and that in doing so, the state denied equal opportunities to black students and faculty by favoring the state’s historically white institutions at the expense of historically black institutions.

The case was litigated for 29 years, during which Mr. Ayers, Sr., died – and the case was taken up by his widow, Mrs. Lillie B. Ayers.

Bakke won his case in California in 1978. Two unrelated 2003 cases involving the University of Michigan saw race-based admissions protected by the high court but saw the court strike down points-based systems that gave automatic points to minority students. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor opined in that case that “in 25 years” affirmative action might not be needed.

Timothy Peck, who pens an influential blog on college admissions, observed: “In general, affirmative action plays an insignificant role in the admissions decisions at most colleges and universities. A 2014 study from the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) found that only 3.4% of colleges reported race/ethnicity having a ‘considerable influence’ on decisions, and another 11.1% said it had a ‘moderate’ influence.”

That study aside, NACAC filed amicus briefs in both the Harvard and North Carolina cases defending affirmative action.

So, the fact is last week’s affirmative action decision by the Supreme Court will have minimal if any impact on college admissions in Mississippi. The Ayers settlement defined that issue in our state, and it is unlikely that the state’s “open enrollment” will be challenged in light of the latest SCOTUS decision on affirmative action.

About the Author(s)
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Sid Salter

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. He is Vice President for Strategic Communications at Mississippi State University. Sid is a member of the Mississippi Press Association's Hall of Fame. His syndicated columns have been published in Mississippi and several national newspapers since 1978.