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Promises unkept


THE NEW restrictions being proposed by the Department of Education on scholarships targeted at minorities are just one more signal that our nation's equity agenda -- the commitment to provide educational access to all -- has been put on hold. Limiting scholarships will serve only to discourage many potential students and deny an open door to the fastest-growing segment of the nation's population.

The "discouragement factor" is not a new phenomenon. It was evident in 1981, when reports of financial aid cutbacks caused many students, particularly minority students, to change their plans for college. Regardless of whether all of the proposed changes actually became law, the damage was done.

People no longer seem to be taking a stand on the equity issue. Too few of my fellow educators are talking about it as they did in the 1970s. And the Bush administration's stand on minority scholarships seems to assume that we've achieved equity and that the playing field is now level. It just isn't true!

We have, in fact, retreated from this commitment and, as a nation, have been chipping away at the very essence of equity since 1980. This is seen in the growing disparity between minority and white students participating in higher education. It is evident in the inability of government student aid to keep up with escalating college costs. It is found in the nation's flagging support of affirmative action.

Policy makers in the administration have forgotten the lesson learned from the civil rights movement: Help one group of people and other groups will be empowered. At the same time that African Americans were gaining rights, women were attaining theirs, too. Today, if we are aggressive in breaking the cycle of poverty, the middle class and all of society will benefit.

The aim of the equity agenda is to have people become stakeholders in assuring a better life for everyone. To that end, we must address access as an investment in human capital rather than as welfare. Our approach needs to recognize that the playing field is not yet level and that we must compensate for generations of inadequate opportunities for minorities.

What is at stake here? Certainly excellence in higher education, in which diversity plays a major role. But what of our work-force needs, our nation's economic survival? How can an America so dependent on an educated populace ignore a third of its people and hope to remain competitive? By the end of the decade, this nation will be more than one-third minority. Persons of color will hold more jobs as older, mostly white workers move into retirement. Through the year 2000, at least half of the new jobs nationally will require a college education. If this doesn't make a compelling argument for educational opportunity, not only because it's the right thing to do, but as a matter of economic self-interest, I don't know what will.

Until Los Angeles exploded, we did not hear any of the presidential candidates paying even lip service to this issue. This could be a sign that we, as a nation, are indeed abandoning our equity agenda.

The proposed restrictions for these scholarships threaten to hinder minority students at every stage of their education. It is true that many students would qualify for scholarships on the basis of need. However, after hearing about the proposed elimination of minority-targeted scholarships, will those students take the trouble to apply for financial aid? Or for admission to college? Will high school counselors tell students that they can't get money for college and will those students choose to switch to easier non-college preparatory programs? Will they give up trying because they believe no one cares about their future?

The minority scholarship debate diverts attention from the larger issue: The purpose of student aid is being frustrated. Targeted scholarships were intended to break the cost barrier, creating access for students regardless of their financial situation. In keeping with that objective, most colleges and universities developed admissions policies that were blind to students' financial needs. Now, given the resource scarcities and the administration's lack of interest in minority access to college, some higher education institutions have begun an insidious retreat from those ideals.

The idea of supporting minorities is a fragile one, given the many competing interests. As we undermine that ideal, we threaten access for underrepresented groups. This sends a message of discouragement at a time when the very basis of affirmative action is vulnerable.

We once told students that someone cared about them and their futures. We must not renege on that promise. We can't afford to put hope on hold.

Dolores E. Cross is president of Chicago State University.

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