FOR generations, a university education has been an integral part of the American dream. But what happens when increasing numbers of people - many of them ethnic minorities - want to grab a piece of that dream? United States colleges and universities find themselves hard-pressed to offer continued opportunity in an age of budget cutbacks.
That concerns Clement Shearer. He grew up in the Columbia Point housing projects in Dorchester, a Boston neighborhood, one of five children of a single mother. His family didn't have the money to send him to college, but a scholarship allowed him to attend Brown University in Providence, R.I., and it changed his life forever.
Today, Mr. Shearer is dean for budget and planning at Carleton College, a small liberal arts school in Minnesota. From his present job, he has watched as government and private financial assistance has failed to keep up with tuition hikes. Even Brown has ended its "need-blind" admissions policy. Given the present economic conditions, Shearer wonders if it will be possible for other poor black youngsters to follow in his footsteps.
"Every student who wants to should be able to attend a college that's an intellectual stretch but not too burdensome," Shearer says. "If cost is driving them to less-appropriate schools, it's a real loss to the nation."
But that is, indeed, what may be occurring today. While the number of blacks and other minorities graduating from high school has increased during the last decade, the number entering college has stagnated. Many educators blame rising tuition and declining financial aid.
In particular, the federal government has shifted a great deal of its aid from Pell grants to student loans. Shearer and others argue this shift discourages many minority youngsters, not used to borrowing large sums of money, from attending college.
The situation is almost as bleak for the vast middle class. While financial aid does usually exist to help the very poor, middle-income students often find they have to forgo their dream of going to a first-class institution.
"Private liberal arts schools are becoming increasingly inaccessible to the large middle class," says Richard Hersh, president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in upstate New York. "If you have an income over, say, $45,000, the principle is [your kids] don't qualify for financial aid."
The demands for access to higher education do not seem likely to ease soon. The number of college-age students, already bulging in Texas, California, Arizona, and a few other states, is predicted to grow rapidly across the country in the mid-1990s. And as more minorities enter the middle class, they will want the traditional American dream of a higher education. The challenge for universities will be to meet those expectations without sacrificing a crucial ingredient - the quality of the education they o ffer.
That is also the dilemma facing universities as they try to increase the number of minority professors; currently whites hold 89.5 percent of faculty positions in the US. According to a survey by Change: The Magazine of Higher Education, a majority of colleges and universities - especially public research institutions - have active programs to recruit minority faculty.
But these programs run up against a statistical brick wall: Blacks and Hispanics together earned only 7.3 percent of doctorates granted by US universities in 1991, and the largest number of those was in the field of education. Hiring more minority faculty, therefore, would mean compromising traditional academic standards - something most universities are reluctant to do.
INSTEAD, colleges often engage in an expensive bidding war for the handful of qualified minority scholars. For instance, English Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is black, was lured from Duke University to Harvard by a salary said to be in six figures.
Ironically, while the numbers of minority students and faculty are not increasing dramatically, access of minorities to the college curriculum may be.
A continuing debate is raging on college campuses over to what extent traditional college curricula should be revised to make way for non-Western perspectives. At the extremes, this debate has triggered charges of "racism" and counter-charges of "political correctness."
But a number of educators say a fragile consensus is emerging on multiculturalism: Simply add non-Western material to existing curricula, instead of dropping the study of Plato, Shakespeare, or Dante. As Martin Anderson, a fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, puts it: "I know Stanford students aren't overworked. We can keep all the courses we have and add more information. You can make the case that the great works of Western civilization should be preserved, but you should also look at new stuff."
Still, while it is unclear to what extent the traditional Western canon still has a place in college classrooms, it is indisputable that multiculturalism - a catch phrase for non-Western subjects - has made significant inroads at most colleges and universities.
According to separate surveys conducted by Change magazine and the American Council on Education, almost half of four-year colleges have instituted multicultural studies requirements; and over 60 percent have incorporated multiculturalism into existing course offerings. The figures are somewhat lower for two-year institutions.
"The debate is no longer over whether multiculturalism should be part of the curriculum, but how," says Prof. Arthur Levine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.