George Watson is a high school senior in great demand. Mor than 100 colleges have flooded him with unsolicited application material, filling two crates in his house in South Orange, N.J. Some have offered to waive their normal $35 application fee. One invited him for an all-expenses-paid visit. Another promised him a $20,000 scholarship, although his parents own a successful business.
Last week Harvard University wrote to say that it had waived its Jan. 1 application deadline for Mr. Watson, so he could still apply. When he called to check, a woman in the Harvard admissions office said she knew nothing about the change, until he identified himself as a black student.
Mr. Watson, who has a 'B' average and scored 690 out of 800 in math on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, is among the beneficiaries of an escalating bidding war by many of the nation's top colleges for academically talented black students.
With more and more colleges pursuing racial diversity with greater zeal in recent years, and with a very small pool of black students who have achieved academic excellence, some colleges have begun recruiting black students the way they have long sought star athletes, with special financial aid, free campus visits and aggressive promotional tactics.
As a result, a number of college officials privately accuse each other of "stealing" black students. And there are growing concerns that some black students from affluent families are receiving scholarships beyond what federal guidelines governing financial aid suggest, depriving needier students of help.
"I am very troubled by this trend," said Neil Rudenstine, the president of Harvard. Like all the Ivy League colleges and a number of other prestigious institutions, Harvard has a policy of giving financial aid based solely on need and of not giving merit scholarships, which are based on a student's academic achievements. The policy is meant to ensure that all students who need assistance get it.
"If this trend continues, we will all be done in, because there is not enough money to go around," Mr. Rudenstine said.
Fred Hargedon, the dean of admissions at Princeton University, said the increasing use of financial aid and other monetary incentives to attract black students is tantamount "to buying them."
What is driving this new competition, college officials agree, is the law of supply and demand. On the demand side, said Eric Widmer, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Brown University, "is that in the past few years a growing number of colleges have come to want more diversity, or to be perceived as being more diverse, since that is now seen as a measure of being a good school."
At the same time, the supply of academically gifted black students remains small, college officials agree. In 1992, only 1 percent of all black high school students, or 1,493 people, scored 600 or above, out of a maximum 800, on the verbal part of the Scholastic Aptitude Test, according to the College Board. Only 2 percent, or 3,404 people, scored 600 or above on the math portion. That compares with 8 percent of white students, or 55,224, who scored over 600 on the verbal portion and 19 percent of whites, or 132,846, who scored that high on the math.
The nation's top colleges normally require a score of at least 600 on each of these tests. But many educators believe that standardized tests like the SAT discriminate against blacks and other minorities because they are culturally biased. A number of colleges advise black applicants that their SAT scores will be given less weight in determining admission than the they are for white applicants, Mr. Widmer said.
Among prestigious institutions that acknowledge having merit scholarships for blacks are the University of Virginia, Duke University, Washington University in St. Louis and Rice University in Houston. Emory University in Atlanta has two merit-based full scholarship programs that are awarded to the top graduates of Atlanta's public schools, whose student bodies are predominantly black. The winners are thus almost invariably black.
While top black students are getting more financial aid, the proportion of blacks who attend college remains well below that of whites. According to a report last month by the American Council on Education, just 24 percent of blacks 18 to 24 were enrolled in college in 1991, compared with 34 percent of whites in that age group.