Guaranteeing college tuition for low-income and minority youths helps keep them in school. That's the conclusion of a federal report released earlier this month. In the early 1980s, various types of private tuition-aid programs began to crop up around the United States.
While the efforts of these generous individuals and corporations have received widespread acclaim and enthusiasm, their results have gotten little formal study.
New York businessman Eugene Lang is the founder of one of the earliest and most successful programs. In 1981, during a speech to 61 sixth-grade public schoolers in East Harlem, Mr. Lang promised that he would pay their college tuition if the youngsters would stay in school and gain acceptance to college.
All but a dozen or so of the ``Dreamers'' (named after Lang's ``I Have a Dream'' Foundation) have received high school diplomas or GEDs (General Educational Development or high school equivalency degrees). More than half - 36 - have enrolled in public or private colleges around the US. The first graduates from places such as Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pa., Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., and New York state and city universities are expected next year. All this from a class predicted to suffer a 75 percent dropout rate.
The participants in Lang's ``I Have a Dream'' program represent the success possible through tuition-guarantee programs.
The US General Accounting Office (GAO) report, ``Promising Practice: Private Programs Guaranteeing Student Aid for Higher Education,'' summarizes what is going on and its significance for government efforts.
These programs ``share the same goal as federal student aid: to help those who have barriers to getting through school overcome them,'' says Frederick Mulhauser, assistant director of GAO's program evaluation and methodology division.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, who chairs the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources, will be heading up a review of all federal student loan and grant programs when they come up for reauthorization in the next Congress, says an aide to the senator.
``The evidence in this report is encouraging,'' said Senator Kennedy, who initiated the study. ``These innovative programs deserve to be expanded. The most effective ones may well serve as models for state and federal support.''
In the school year 1988-89, more than 42,000 secondary-school students participated in tuition-guarantee programs, according to the report.
The long-term effectiveness of these programs is not measurable at this point, Mr. Mulhauser says. But ``there's a great deal of promising effort,'' he says.
The report found that the most successful tuition-aid programs offer a support network reaching well beyond financial aid. ``It's not enough simply to make financial aid available at the end of high school,'' Mulhauser says.
Lang's program begins in sixth grade and provides motivation through a mentor relationship between the sponsor and the students. The program has expanded to 45 cities in 25 states and involves more than 9,000 students. Individual sponsors are committed to doing whatever it takes to assist disadvantaged young people down the slippery pathway of education.
``I try to do many of the things for the children that parents should do and that their parents may not be able to do for all kinds of reasons,'' says Lang in a telephone interview.
``Lang has done a very good job of stimulating broader interest and encouraging others to take this on,'' says Michael A. Bailin, president of Public/Private Ventures, a program development and research organization in Philadelphia. ``Whether they'll be able to put in what he puts in by way of resources - and I don't just mean financial - has yet to be determined.''
Public/Private Ventures is undertaking a four-year $4 million series of projects studying mentoring for at-risk youth.
``The phenomenon has just taken root and seems to be flowering,'' Mr. Bailin says. But he sees a need to think realistically about the idea of mentoring as a widespread social strategy. ``People need to know more about this and take more seriously what the needs of these kids are before they just assume that mentoring is going to work,'' he says.
``If we can do something to support families and deal with the larger issues of poverty and the problems that generates,'' Bailin says, ``we might be doing a lot more than just dropping a well-intentioned adult into a kid's life.''