Federal Court Rejects ACT-Based Scholarships

University Testing

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has ruled that Mississippi?s five predominantly white public universities (the historically white institutions, or HWIs) continue to foster segregation by basing scholarships on students? ACT scores.


In its finding, the court compared this use of ACT cutoff scores to a similar requirement previously used by the five HWIs to admit students. That admissions policy was struck down in 1992 when the United States Supreme Court ruled that it was a remnant of de jure segregation. The scholarship issue has now been returned to a lower court with instructions to look for scholarship policies that eliminate use of ACT cutoffs "consistent with sound educational practices."


The unanimous decision by the three-judge panel was the latest round in the landmark Mississippi case -- known as Fordice v. Ayers -- that was first filed by a group of African American plaintiffs in 1975 (See Examiner Spring 1995 and Spring 1996). After the Supreme Court ordered Mississippi in 1992 to do more to eliminate segregation in its public university system, the case was returned to U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers.


In 1995 Judge Biggers ordered a complete overhaul of admissions standards and other policies at the state?s eight public universities (the five HWIs and three historically black institutions) to remove vestiges of segregation. Last year, lawyers for the plaintiffs, joined by the U.S. Department of Justice, appealed those portions of Judge Biggers' ruling that dealt with scholarships, remedial education and admissions standards.


The Appeals Court decision noted that ACT-based scholarships go disproportionately to white students and declared that the policy would discourage academically qualified black students from applying to and matriculating at HWIs (see accompanying chart).


"Just as there may be students who could do college-level work who yet might be precluded from enrolling in an institution that maintains ACT cutoffs in admissions, there may be students who have outstanding academic achievement that merits recognition apart from their ACT scores," the panel wrote.


However, the court also noted that "the use of ACT cutoffs in the award of scholarships raises constitutional suspicion only because of the history of de jure segregation in Mississippi....The practice of rewarding academic achievement as determined by standardized test scores, even where it results in significant racial disparities in receipt of awards, is not per se unconstitutional."


Lawyers for the plaintiffs were pleased with the court?s finding on scholarships but they were disappointed by the refusal of the court to order the adoption at all eight universities of new admissions standards that would exclude fewer students, particularly African Americans.


In his 1995 ruling, Judge Biggers approved a state plan to use students? high shool grades and standardized-test scores as admissions criteria at all public universities. Previously, all eight public universities had based their admissions on ACT scores, with the five HWIs requiring a higher score than the three historically black universities. Plaintiffs' lawyers and the Department of Justice argued that the new standards would keep out more academically qualified African American students.


In reviewing Judge Biggers? approval of the state admissions standards plan, the Appeals Court said that his ruling was "not clearly erroneous" even though the judge himself had recognized that the new policy might limit access for black students without remedial courses.


The court concluded that reliance on ACT scores is acceptable as long as they are used in conjunction with high school grades and as long as an alternate route to admissions is open to students. Currently, students can also gain acceptance through a special program that includes a spring screening and a summer remediation program.


According to the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs, Alvin Chambliss, Jr., the Court of Appeals decision upheld the principle that student diversity at formerly segregated public universities is a "compelling interest" of a state. That finding, he said, contradicts the Hopwood decision, also out of the Fifth Circuit, which has led Texas to ban most affirmative action programs in higher education.


A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education said that the recent ruling in the Mississippi case will most likely not have any impact on how Texas officials interpret Hopwood. One key difference between the two states' higher education systems, apparently, is that no court has ever found the Texas system guilty of de jure segregation.


Whether the Fordice decision will force change in Texas or not, however, the Court of Appeals decision has made it clear that the inflexible use of ACT score cutoffs, either for scholarship allocation or for admissions, is "constitutionally problematic."


 African Americans Receiving Scholarships at Mississippi's Historically White Institutions
 School  % Black
 % Black Scholarship
 Delta State Univ.  21  1.2 
 Miss. State Univ.  16  1.8
 Miss. Univ. for Women  21  3.7
 Univ. of Miss.  7  2.7
 Univ. of Southern Miss.  27  1.4

Figures for 1992-93 Freshmen
Source: Black Issues in Higher Education, Vol. 14, No. 6, May 1997, pp. 20-22