Clueless in Seattle

By Jon Jewett
web posted November 22, 1999

John D. Rockefeller. Leland Stanford. James B. Duke. William Marsh Rice. Cornelius Vanderbilt. Andrew Carnegie. And now comes Bill Gates, who like his predecessors has amassed an enormous fortune but never earned a college degree, to join the ranks of the great benefactors of American higher education. After warming up with a few smaller bequests, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has announced the Gates Millennium Scholars program, which will provide $50 million in scholarships each year to 4,000 economically disadvantaged African American, Hispanic American, Native American and Asian American students with high academic and leadership promise. Although undergraduate scholarships will not be restricted to specific areas of study; graduate scholarships will be limited to the fields of engineering, mathematics, science, education and library science.

At first blush, this appears to be a motherhood-and-apple pie proposition. Who, other than a few racists, could be churlish enough to object to a program that will enable poor but academically promising minority kids to go to college and graduate school? If only that were the probable outcome! Alas, the Gates scholarships are likely to do little more than prove yet again that it takes more than good intentions to achieve good results. Under scrutiny, this program gives every sign of having been conceived without benefit of careful analysis of either the problem it is supposed to alleviate or its likely impact in the real world of financial aid.

The main premise of the program is that the absence of adequate financial assistance is the principal barrier to higher enrollment of minorities in college, and is often the reason minorities fail to attain a degree. Is this true? The evidence points the other way. A recent U.S. Department of Education study of access to post-secondary education found that even though a larger proportion of black than white students are from low-income families, among students who meet minimum requirements for admission to a four year college a slightly higher percentage of blacks than whites actually enroll. Also, college-qualified low-income and middle-income students are equally likely to enroll in four year institutions. Nor are there significant differences in the enrollment rates of college-qualified black, Hispanic, Asian and white students who have taken the required college entrance exams and completed an application for admission.

The study therefore concludes that the lower college enrollment rates of low-income high school graduates are largely attributable to lower average levels of high school academic achievement and expectations, and not the amount of financial aid available. This finding confirms earlier studies.

In short, the effective financial barriers to higher education appear to be no greater for minorities than for whites. This is not really so surprising, in view of the enormous amount of need-based aid provided by the federal and state governments, private sources, and the colleges themselves. Even if lack of financial aid was a significant barrier, the Gates scholarships would be unlikely to have any measurable effect on educational outcomes. $50 million, generous as it may be, is a drop in the bucket of financial aid, which in 1998-99 was $64.1 billion, and is certain to climb far higher over the next twenty years (new Federal tax credits alone are expected to add $12-15 billion annually by 2002). Last year outright grants to students amounted to almost $26 billion, and recently have been increasing at the rate of about $2 billion per year. Conservatively assuming that at least one-fourth of current grant money goes to minorities, the Gates scholarships will increase the amount of cash available to minority students by less than 1 per cent.

The simple fact, of which we should be proud, is that in this country a college education is highly accessible to qualified and motivated students, regardless of race and family income. The reason not all students go on to college, which more college financial aid will do little or nothing to change, is that not all high school graduates are qualified and motivated to do so.

For all the talk in press releases and interviews of helping poor minority students who cannot afford college, it is highly unlikely that any Gates scholarships will actually find their way to students who otherwise would not attend college. Applicants must have at least a 3.3 GPA on a 4.0 scale and demonstrated leadership ability, and be nominated by high school faculty and administrators. Every year tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of students will satisfy these qualifications. Competition for the scholarships, each of which will be worth an average of $12,500 a year, will be fierce, and schools will surely nominate their strongest students. This is implicitly recognized in this description of the awards: "Individuals selected . . . will receive funds for the cost of tuition, fees, books and living costs not covered by grants and scholarships already committed as part of a student's financial aid package." The reality is that the Gates scholarships will be used to "top off" financial aid packages. At selective colleges need-based aid packages typically include loans and work-study requirements. For a lucky few the Gates scholarships will replace the loans and part-time jobs with cash.

Perhaps it is in the public interest for a small number of students at expensive colleges to avoid the student loans and summer jobs required of classmates, including other minority students, who may have even fewer financial resources, but it is difficult to immediately discern. One likely effect of the Gates scholarships is that they will make it easier for the schools that provide only need-based aid, e.g., Harvard, Yale, Princeton, to compete financially against state universities or private colleges that now have the advantage of being able to offer a full ride, or at least to sweeten the pot with merit money, in recruiting the most sought after minority students. Whether this will be a good thing depends on your point of view. It is also unclear how "economically disadvantaged" scholarship recipients will have to be to qualify for a scholarship. By Ivy League standards many middle and upper income students have significant financial need, and it will not be surprising if much of the money goes to kids from comfortably middle-class families.

The lack of a coherent rationale is not the only puzzling feature of the Gates scholarships. If under-representation of minorities is the concern, why are Asian Americans included? Is Gates really so oblivious to the current ethnic mix in graduate schools as to think that Asian Americans are "under-represented" in fields like engineering, math, and science? Does he believe that an Asian American kid in LA faces greater financial barriers to higher education than, say, a Greek American kid from Buffalo with the same family income?

The selection process will take into account grades, community service, extracurricular activities, and recommendations, but scores on college entrance exams will not be considered. Why? Historically black colleges like Morehouse and Howard consider SAT and ACT scores, because they are useful in predicting future academic performance for blacks as well as whites. Ignoring them simply insures that fewer of the Gates scholars will be academically successful. If the objective is to increase the number of math Ph.D.'s, how is it possible to justify not taking into account a large difference in SAT math scores when choosing between two Hispanic students with otherwise similar qualifications?

And why does Bill Gates believe that it is desirable to direct more minority students to graduate schools of education? Maybe he first should read a few education school dissertations. These are places that produce administrators and bureaucrats, not the effective front-line teachers that are so badly needed. Why further subsidize the institutions that have contributed so greatly to the abysmal teaching in so many public schools?

The Gates scholarships will undoubtedly do some good. The lucky recipients may choose to attend more expensive schools than they otherwise would, and at least will walk away from college and graduate school without student loans to repay. Of course, if simply distributing largess to minority students is the objective, a simple lottery would achieve much the same result, without the administrative costs of a selective scholarship program. But if Bill Gates sincerely wants to increase the number of minority college and graduate school students, he should devote his money and his efforts to improving primary and secondary education, not to another college scholarship program.

In a society as affluent as ours, it is not easy to give away money in a manner that yields significant long-term benefits for society. Fortunately Bill Gates is still relatively young, and most of his charitable gifts have yet to be made. Perhaps next time he will do something that will really make a difference in American education. He just needs to do his homework first.

This is Jon Jewett's first piece for Enter Stage Right.

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