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History enlightens us about merit-based education standards

By Donna Jackson
web posted October 16, 2023

Debating the need for merit-based college admissions should start with the goal of education — contributing to the economic output of communities. George Washington Carver, a Black American botanist, inventor and former slave, said it best when he stated that education is the key to unlocking the golden door of freedom. 

When you can do the common things of life in an uncommon way, you will command the world's attention. 

As a Black American, let's follow Carver's extraordinary example of what we can accomplish for ourselves and the communities we live in. To his credit, no individual has contributed more to the growth of the world's population than he did. He pioneered crop rotation and founded an industrial agricultural research lab, developing hundreds of applications for new plants. His development of more than 300 uses for peanuts, soybeans, pecans and sweet potatoes can be found in 94 percent of household products today.

George Washington Carver was driven by his need to help poor Black and, yes, poor White people. But today, we're supposed to believe Black Americans aren't capable of achievement like this. In the minds of administrators and advocates who champion lowering academic standards, getting rid of homework, testing, deadlines, and feeling like math is racist, they cannot fathom this kind of economic contribution from a Black student today. Because, of course, we are too fragile, helpless and, yes, stupid. And it is this kind of racist thinking that has led to the need to eliminate merit-based admissions.

But nobody benefits when we abandon merit-based college admissions in favor of race-based or other approaches. The recent ruling by the Supreme Court rejecting race-based admissions is not only sound law but also sound policy. The growing attempts by the education establishment to do an end-run around the SCOTUS ruling hurts the very students they claim to be helping.

College prepares young people for the job market, and some career paths are highly demanding and competitive. If high school students applying to colleges are not qualified for a particular academic program, letting them in anyway only means less chance of success upon graduation — and that is if they even graduate.

Maybe some students would be able to succeed at the highest academic levels after a year or two at a community college or a stint in the military, but throwing them into the fire before they are ready can only do long-term harm to them and take away opportunities from others.

In addition, unyielding standards foster excellence. Consider basketball great Michael Jordan, who was spurred on by failing to make his high school varsity team. 

"Whenever I was working out and got tired and figured I ought to stop, I'd close my eyes and see that list in the locker room without my name on it. That usually got me going again," he said. 

In the alternative, waiving standards gives young people a sense of entitlement and serves to stifle their long-term growth. People who are told they are too fragile to handle difficult situations start to doubt their own ability, making them ineffective when needed. And those made to feel they are owed something are less likely to achieve. If Michael Jordan were handed an automatic spot on the team, we probably would have never heard of him.

Of course, a big part of the blame goes to the failing public schools in which many disadvantaged young people are trapped. The solution is to fix those public schools or provide alternatives — not to simply ignore the damage they have done to their students' readiness for higher education by providing unofficial quotas and set-asides.

Economic empowerment comes from preparing future entrepreneurs, industry leaders and innovators. The role of education is to prepare young people to succeed. Subverting the process to achieve a racial outcome defeats this purpose. ESR

Donna Jackson is the director of membership development for the Project 21 black leadership network. She wrote this for


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