Will the `Lang solution' to affordable college catch on?

It was a parting of the clouds, of sorts, when the story broke last fall about Eugene Lang, the New York industrialist, and his offer to the sixth-graders at his old elementary school in East Harlem. Finish high school, he said, and I'll pay your way through college. In a neighborhood in which close to 90 percent drop out, virtually every student in that class has made it to the 11th grade, and is doing well enough to go on to college. Mr. Lang has kept personally in touch with the students. ``This has actually guided me,'' one told a reporter.

An answer, it seemed, to the specter of federal budget cuts, mandated by Gramm-Rudman, and even to deeper social problems in places like East Harlem. But is anyone going to follow Lang's example? An informal survey suggests sprinklings of activity here and there.

The potential for such generosity seems practically without limit. For example, there will be a million millionaires in the United States next year, according to U.S. News & World Report. If each of them adopted just one student -- not 52 as Eugene Lang did -- we could offer a college education to every single high school freshman who is likely, at present rates, to drop out before graduation. All without new taxes or bigger deficits.

Calls to big-city school systems around the country indicate that the philanthropists are not rushing forward -- not yet, at least. ``There's been nothing like that,'' says Pat Spencer of the Los Angeles Unified School District. ``Not any individuals here in Boston,'' echoes John Diggins, an official with that city's public schools.

To be sure, American businesses have continued the practice, begun after the 1968 riots, of providing help to public schools. Today, this giving takes a multitude of forms, from support for teacher training to the much-publicized ``adopt-a-school'' programs. In Los Angeles, which claims the biggest such program in the country, over 500 local businesses have adopted individual schools, providing tutoring, classroom materials, career education, and the like.

Constructive as these adopt-a-school programs can be, however, they aren't the same as giving a whole class of sixth-graders a reason to finish high school. ``Clearly this is a limited mechanism,'' said David Bergholz, who oversees Pittsburgh's program, to the Los Angeles Times.

Touchy questions arise, moreover, when businesses get involved in the curriculum, whether through adopt-a-school programs or otherwise. Sears, Roebuck & Co., for example, is underwriting a program to assist in teaching economics. ``Schools must maintain their integrity,'' Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, told the New York Times.

Mr. Lang, who thinks there's a place for corporate programs, observes: ``You have to distinguish the quality of human contact from that of corporate human contact.''

There was something special about his personal offer to the sixth-grade class in East Harlem -- the combination of a tangible incentive to each student with the kind of one-to-one caring that results when an individual decides to get involved. While benefactors aren't yet stepping forward in exactly the way he did, there are still some definite stirrings along these lines.

On the incentive side, the New England Life Insurance Company has contributed $1 million to endow a ``last dollar'' scholarship program, called ACCESS, for graduates of Boston high schools. The fund will fill in any gaps left by money from other sources. Like Lang's offer, the scholarships are available to all students, not just those with the highest grades. The merit approach ``would kill the program,'' Boston's Diggins says. ``Kids would assume the super-dupers would get it all the time.''

Mario Pena, coordinator of the ACCESS program, says flatly that the ultimate goal is to help ``everybody'' who needs it. ``No kid in this city should have to say, `I got admitted [to college] but I can't afford to go.' That should be a thing of the past.''

On a smaller scale, Dave Bing, former NBA all-star and president of Bing Steel in Detroit, gives one scholarship a year to graduates of the Detroit public schools who major in business and work with his company during the summer and part time during the school year.

On the individual commitment side, there are people like Ken Amos, a Washington business consultant, whom William Bennett, the secretary of education, cited in a speech last December. A number of years ago, Amos and his wife decided to provide a sort of surrogate home for students from their teen-ager's high school, providing dinner, a place to study, and someone to talk to. They've established this kind of relationship with about 40 young people so far, many of them now in college. ``My approach is very simple,'' he says. ``I treat all kids like they're mine. . . . Kids are looking for direction. They are looking for love.''

A combination of tangible incentives and individual commitment is evolving right now at DeSalvo High School in the low-income Grand Boulevard neighborhood in Chicago. The Rev. Thomas Barrett of the Life Center Church there is enlisting business people and others to, in essence, adopt a student at the local DeSalvo High School, where the dropout rate has been close to 60 percent. Barrett's spur to action was a controversy over a health clinic at the school that was dispensing contraceptives. ``He felt it was a band-aid, not a cure,'' says the Rev. Velma Thompson, who is Barrett's assistant.

To qualify for the ``Life Enrichment Program,'' students will have to agree in their freshman year to live up to 10 conditions, on matters ranging from grades and attendance to gangs, drugs, and sex. In return, an individual sponsor will put a set amount into a mutual fund each week on the student's behalf. Counseling is also part of the program. The sponsor will keep in regular touch with the student, and possibly provide a summer job. When the student graduates, the money can be used for whatever the student wants.

Why not say the money has to be used for college? ``We have to show that we respect and trust them,'' says Velma Thompson. ``If counseling has been of any benefit, they will do the right thing.''

Judith Steinhagen, principal of DeSalvo, is understandably enthusiastic. ``The very fact that somebody pays attention can make a difference,'' she says.

In Washington, the staff of Education Secretary Bennett (who has generally supported cuts in the federal education budget) hope to bestir additional private efforts to aid students and their schools. The Major League Players Association, among others, has expressed interest in getting involved.

And Eugene Lang is not about to let the matter rest. Having received stacks of letters asking for advice, he's in the process of writing up a manual based on his own experience.

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