College Money That Affirms

In many states, helping low-income minority students get into college once required classifying them as, well, a nonwhite minority.

But California, where minorities are now in the majority, has rejected the race-based way of affirmative action and this month enacted a law greatly enlarging tuition grants for students from all low-income families, whatever the color.

Will this idea of casting a broad financial net provide the same equal opportunity in education as quotas and other versions of affirmative action did?

Probably, if the effort is earnest and long term.

For those high school graduates with good grades, the state will give full tuition at a state institution, or up to $9,700 a year at a private college.

The eligibility rules for family income (the cut-off is $64,000 for a family of four) and grades (even C students can get some help) are liberal. Essentially, California is offering a new entitlement for higher education.

At the same time, it's beefing up its merit-scholarship program, which rewards the top 10 percent of students in each high school.

California is to be commended for spending a good chunk of its current budget surplus ($12 billion) on making higher education a more realistic option for students - many of them Hispanic or black - who might otherwise have faced a financial barrier.

And California's not alone. Florida guarantees admission to its state colleges and universities for the top 20 percent of graduates from each high school. It is also boosting the financial aid available to needy students. Guaranteed admissions was an idea pioneered by Texas in response to a court-ordered ban on affirmative action.

In addition, many state and private schools - ranging from Texas A&M to the University of Iowa to Brown University - are competing to attract low-income and minority students. Financial aid is often generous.

In total, these programs should help keep educational opportunity alive and growing. But that task will demand frequent recommitment and fine tuning. What happens, for instance, when California's surplus dries up? And what of complaints that Florida's top-20-percent plan fails to take into account academic disparities among high schools?

Still, the idea of expanding access to college is on target. It's a leg-up for low-income families that sees beyond color but still helps cure the aftereffects of the racial discrimination that still exists in the United States.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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