It was an extraordinary offer. Sixteen years ago, millionaire industrialist Eugene Lang visited an elementary school in Harlem that had a dropout rate of more than 70 percent. Mr. Lang promised a class of mostly African-American and Hispanic sixth-graders that if they graduated from high school, he would pay for them to go to college.
Of the 54 students who participated in what became the first I Have a Dream project, 48 finished high school. Thirty-seven received college degrees or are working toward them. Now Lang has made another promise: scholarships for the original group's children, if they finish high school.
Why was Lang's offer of a scholarship to a group of underprivileged students in 1981 (and to their children this week) so noteworthy? It was not, as Lang himself has pointed out, the tuition that was crucial so much as the dream, "the credible hope that life could offer [these students] more than was apparent at the time...."
That dream kept most of the original class of students off the streets. And it had a ripple effect, motivating siblings and peers. Since the offer, 170 I Have a Dream programs have been established in 63 cities.
Lang has proven that, to be successful, tuition-aid programs must offer strong support networks. People and resources have to be available to those students who accept the challenge of staying in school and striving for college. Lang says the original I Have a Dream project was a success because of his personal involvement.
He's still committed, and now a second generation will reap the benefits. On average, 90 percent of students involved in I Have a Dream projects complete high school. They do it because they have a tangible incentive. More important, they do it because someone cares.