Public Schools Need Balance

Recently I had a discussion with a former instructor about raising admissions standards (search) for Mississippi State and other Mississippi colleges. This discussion came about as a result of my reading two articles about different aspects of academia.

The first article was about President Charles Lee's desire to see our university rise to the status of national prominence. The second was a Daily Mississippian editorial entitled "Ole Miss needs standards."

They both lead me to wonder, "What are the roles of public universities in this century? How do they achieve national prominence while serving the needs of the people of the state?"

Some would argue that to achieve prominence you first have to be more selective in admissions standards. This in turn would attract a student body more focused on the pursuit of higher learning as opposed to personal gratification. They argue that this would create an environment more conducive to learning, which in turn breeds a better graduate.

I oppose overly high admissions standards because they create private schools within a public system, while other state colleges within the system are deemed inferior.

The role of state colleges is first to educate the people of the state. High admissions standards that make it hard for state residents to enroll are contrary to that mission.

Another role of the state college system is to make tuition as reasonable as possible. But with prestige comes a hefty price tag.

Take for example, the prestigious University of Virginia Law School (search) --a public school. It is listed as number nine on U.S. News and World Report's Top 100 Law Schools. Tuition alone for a resident of Virginia carries a price tag of $23,798 per year. When they include an estimation of fees and other expenses, the price tag rises to $38,100.

The University of Virginia can use prestige as a justification for the hefty price tag.

The university was founded by Thomas Jefferson and can boast notable alumni like the legendary Sen. John C. Stennis (search), an MSU alumnus, and Robert F. Kennedy, former attorney general and presidential candidate. This type of alumni base creates a greater endowment and therefore creates less reliance on public funds.

The University of Virginia also justifies their tuition price by claiming that they make every effort to keep tuition as low as possible. They expect to continue charging lower tuition than comparable schools like Harvard or Yale.

As long as it is a public institution, every taxpaying Virginian--whether the son of a tobacco farmer or a dot com millionaire--should be able to get a good education at a reasonable rate, if they meet reasonable qualifications.

My former instructor made the point that the lower the admissions standards, the more likely your degree will be viewed as less valuable in the real world. He had a good point.

I was looking at another prominent law school's admissions policy when I discovered that they factored "the quality of an applicant's undergraduate institution" into admissions.

If admission committees see MSU on my application, is my application automatically deemed second class because I graduated from a public school?"

Mississippi's public universities admissions standards are a direct result of the 1992 lawsuit, U.S. v. Fordice (search). The Supreme Court ruled that states had to eliminate any remnants of segregation in public college systems.

The Supreme Court cited that having an ACT requirement was a barrier to higher education because it disproportionally affected minorities and the poor due to their low test scores.

The Ayers case (search), like the numerous affirmative action cases, were all steps in defeating institutionalized racism. The problem is the lack of flexibility in structuring admissions policies as time progresses.

America's public higher education officials should come together in a collective body to develop a way to restructure admissions policies to attract the very best students to their universities, while not disregarding the average students.

We can improve higher education while staying true to the mission of public universities.

This article originally appeared in The Reflector, the college newspaper for Mississippi State University. Edward Sanders is a sophmore political science major. Students at MSU watch the Fox News channel on their campus cable system.

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