WASHINGTON -- Microsoft chairman and co-founder Bill Gates thinks he can buy my admiration by pledging a billion dollars to minority scholarships, he's right -- not just because it is generous, but also because it is clever.
Figure it out: The more college-educated Americans we have, the more computers are likely to be sold, which means more money for Microsoft, the world's biggest maker of computer software.
And by targeting minorities, particularly blacks, Hispanics and American Indians, Mr. Gates helps expand the slowest-growing racial market for computer use.
All of which illustrates something I have been arguing for years, that wise investments in the poor -- investments that help the needy to become self-sufficient -- pay back huge dividends for everybody. What's good for Mr. Gates is, in this case at least, good for America.
The digital divide
In today's information age, the digital divide not only parallels the divide between the races and the classes, but also it widens the gap. The Commerce Department's latest report on the computer gap between the races and regions of America, "Falling Through the Net," finds a dramatically close relationship between college education and computer use and online access.
For example, Americans with a college education are about four times more likely to have online access (38.4 percent) than those who have only high school diplomas (9.6 percent) and almost 10 times more likely to own a personal computer (63.2 percent) than those who have no high school education at all (6.8 percent).
The Commerce Department's report also found that, except for Asians, nonwhites lag behind whites as a group in both college education and computer ownership. Worse, the digital divide actually has grown in recent years.
Despite increases in computer ownership by blacks and Latinos, whites bought even more. As a result, the gap between blacks and whites grew from 16.8 percent in 1994 to 21.5 percent in 1997.
For blacks and Hispanics, it grew from 14.8 percent to 21.4 percent during the same period. Unfortunately, Internet illiteracy shuts out those who, in many cases, can benefit the most from Web access.
Besides offering homework help, the Web offers information and access to jobs, loans, scholarships, health care and, of course, the news. Youngsters can even find a mentor at Web sites like imentor.org that hook them up with grown-ups who work in fields that the kids are interested in and who are willing to answer questions and offer encouragement by e-mail.
Today we are witnessing the early stages in the formation of a new class structure: The information rich and the information poor, a split-level social structure that parallels America's growing gap between economically rich and poor.
A recent study by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, called "The Widening Income Gap," says the rich-poor gap is wider than at any time since the Great Depression, not only because Mr. Gates and other rich people are getting richer, but also because the poorest fifth of Americans have seen their after-tax income decline over the past 20 years.
Mr. Gates and his wife, Melinda, are pledging at least $1 billion to fund full scholarships for at least 1,000 minority high school students a year over the next 20 years in the fields of education, math, science and engineering.
Closing the gap
The program, called the Gates Millennium Scholarships, will be open to all racial minorities, but it will be especially be aimed at closing the gap between the rates at which black, Hispanic and American Indian students attain advanced degrees in math and science compared with whites and Asians.
Beginning in the fall of next year, applicants must be high school seniors with a 3.3 grade average who have a commitment to some form of community service, which they will describe in an essay. Mr. Gates is providing an important role model for other high-tech firms. More should follow his example. Investing in people pays back huge dividends.
Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 9/30/99