Bill Gates, who in January turned over the day-to-day reins of Microsoft to buy more time to exercise his entrepreneurial instincts and engage in charitable causes, shipped his first billion-dollar brainstorm on the philanthropic front in September 1999. Marketed with all the fanfare of a Windows rollout, the Gates Millennium Scholars Program marked the first foray of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation into education philanthropy. The program’s aim: To provide the monetary means to allow thousands of low-income minority students to afford a college education.
As worthy causes go, increasing minority Americans’ college completion rate has to rank pretty high, not least because by any measure minority representation in key education fields is so lamentably low: According to the National Center for Education Statistics, for the 1996–97 school year, of the 1,174 Math Ph.D’s conferred nationwide, only two went to Native Americans and seven to African Americans, while just one and one-half percent of all engineering doctorates were earned by Hispanics. Why so few minority scholars? For the Gates Foundation, the answer is straightforward: “The absence of adequate financial assistance heads the list of barriers prohibiting the enrollment of these groups.” The Foundation goes on to note that 30,000 black, Hispanic, Native American, and Asian students “are not attending college annually because of financial limitations.”
As Gates himself said at the September 1999 unveiling of the Millennium grants, in a statement unleavened by any irony on the part of the man whose career took off only after he quit college: “The greatest thing you can do is provide somebody with a wonderful education. . .. We’d like to do that in a way that they can really focus on their studies, that they don’t have to be having too many jobs on the side or be thinking about the size of the loans they’re building up.”
Laudable concerns, to be sure—and backed up by the single largest grant in the history of higher education in America. Beginning with the 2000–2001 academic year, the Millennium Scholars program will support 1,000 new students per year for 20 years—an annual investment of $50 million and an overall commitment of $1 billion. “At any given point,” says Gates Foundation literature, “4,000 students per year will be Millennium Scholars.” Indeed, as news accounts following the announcement noted, the Gates bequest will “nearly double the number of scholarships available” to deserving minority college students. So significant is the infusion of cash that the United Negro College Fund (UNCF)—the designated “fiscal authority” for the disbursement of the Gates grants—saw its annual revenue jump by nearly one-third. As UNCF President Bill Gray is careful to note—subtracting the administrative costs that will apparently be consumed by UNCF—the Gates’ billion dollar bequest will leave $930 to $950 million available to help students.
The Millennium grants are aimed at providing needy students’ so-called “last dollar of aid,” replacing the loans that now all-too-often bridge the gap between government and college discretionary grants and the overall cost of attending college. Millennium grants would eliminate the need for loans, while leaving in place the web of Pell Grants, Equal Opportunity Grants, federal campus-based grants, work-study funds, and institutional scholarships that constitute the typical sources of aid for today’s low-income college student.
Still, if the mechanics of the Millennium program seem well-conceived, the mission gives cause for question. Among college aid experts, no one is quite ready to look a billion-dollar gift horse in the mouth, but plenty are willing to express anonymous skepticism that Gates’s generosity will accomplish very much. As one college aid expert puts it, “Don’t worry—the money will get spent. But at the end of the day, will we see more minority students begin college and complete college because of Bill Gates’ grants? I don’t think so.”
Buying Blue-Chip Futures
The reason for the skepticism rests on the eligibility criteria the Gates Foundation has set out for potential Millennium Scholars. To be considered for a Millennium grant, graduating seniors must:
- Possess a minimum 3.3 GPA (on a 4.0 scale),
- Show significant financial need, and
- Demonstrate leadership through commitment in community service, including volunteer work as a mentor or tutor.
Scores on college entrance exams will not be used to determine Millennium grant recipients; instead, prospective scholars will be asked to submit a 500-word essay “outlining their career goals, detailing a significant life event, and stipulating their commitment to community service.” In the world of minority college applicants, Bill Gates is in no mood to risk his philanthropic capital on long shots. He’s put in a buy order for blue chip futures only.
How difficult would it be to put together a comprehensive financial aid package for a minority high-achiever meeting the Gates Millennium profile? Not very, according to Tucker Winn, President and Chief Consultant of Alexandria, Virginia-based College Consulting & Placement Services. “A [student with a] profile like that,” says Winn, “would be an easy sell. I’d be aiming at Ivy League, or a cut below: Amherst, Williams and so on. Colleges are fighting for those students.”
In Winn’s experience, “The problem wouldn’t be the availability of the money. It would be the availability of the students [who meet the Millennium profile].”
Statistics bear out Winn’s point. Only about half of the nation’s Hispanic students now earn high school diplomas, while only about one-third reach college. Rates for African-Americans are higher, but only marginally so. In other words, Gates’s blank check to minority high-achievers will help that sub-category of students most able to help themselves, while harder-to-place minority kids are left without a financial lifeline.
Dr. Herm Davis, author of College Financial Aid for Dummies and a consultant with more than 30 years of experience in the college aid game, puts it this way:
You can see what the Gates people are trying to do. It’s honorable. But it’s the “same old, same old.” Any college in the U.S. that can pick up high-achieving minority students with demonstrated [financial] need will put the money on the table to get those kids in. And any financial aid officer worth his salt will steer students toward the Gates Scholarships, and put his funds elsewhere. It would be irresponsible not to.
According to Davis:
The problem is not lack of money. The problem is lack of planning. These kids come from homes where the family’s future is today and tomorrow—getting food on the table, paying the rent. Chances are, nobody in their family ever went to college before. They don’t see the application deadlines coming. They’re drawing up a list of colleges they might want to go to, but when you ask them, they haven’t signed up for the SAT. They need counseling, coaching to get them ready. If they don’t get it, they don’t get in. It’s that simple.
“You’ve got to wonder what would happen,” Davis speculates, “if you spent that billion helping kids get ready for college earlier—when it still mattered.”
That’s precisely what one foundation is doing. In a program inspired by the desire to help “youngsters who have been knocked down a time or two” get the chance they deserve, Colorado cable magnate Bill Daniels has instructed his charitable foundation to put the bulk of his $1.1 billion fortune into an effort to counsel kids who, unlike Gates’s Millennium achievers, don’t have college aid offices chasing after them.
“We know it’s going to take us more time and effort to find these kids,” explains Phillip J. Hogue, president of the Daniels Fund. “That’s why we’re going into the schools, working with the counselors, the administrators and the teachers to make the connection with students whose record might not indicate their real potential.” Bill Daniels, who worked as an oil-field roughneck, short-order cook, and a bellhop before forging a cable empire, apparently understands the phenomenon of late-blooming.
Hogue explains that Daniels’s idea is to help students with college preparation, such as application writing and test taking. College aid scholarships are part of the picture, but only for a select one-fourth of the college-bound grads the Daniels Fund will counsel. The other three-quarters, prepped on the application process and with their tests scores in hand, will be turned loose to find their own funding from traditional sources.
Daniels’s approach is to begin this year with a pilot program for Denver public school juniors, and build out to as many as 1,000 young people from Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming, the states Bill Daniels traversed in the 1950s bringing rural communities their first taste of cable TV.
To put the program in place, Hogue turned to College Summit, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that helps prepare low-income, mid-tier achievers for college. “When you’re talking about getting minority kids into college, one challenge is funding,” says J. B. Schramm, executive director of College Summit, “but the other is finding. Our idea is to reach out beyond redundancy, to help kids who aren’t being helped by the system in place right now.”
Schramm further notes that for students in the bottom quartile in family income, just 34 percent make their way into college. For College Summit kids, that number rises to 79 percent. That achievement is all the more impressive given that College Summit offers no scholarships of its own; all of its college-bound students have won their financing in the college aid marketplace.
Established in a D.C. housing project in 1993, College Summit has gone from helping four students that first year to more than 800 in 1999–2000, on an annual budget of $900,000. Schramm’s hope is for a bit of unintended synergy between the Gates project and the Daniels Fund. “The way we see it,” says Schramm, “the Gates commitment will definitely increase educational opportunities for low-income students not only by the scholarships he provides—but by freeing up money colleges spend now to attract high-achieving kids to allocate to the higher-risk kids we’re trying to help.”
Yet if that’s the most likely legacy for Gates’ billion, it’s an oddly un-entrepreneurial approach from the man who, for many Americans, is entrepreneurialism personified. Who can doubt that in years to come, we’ll see a steady stream of minority scholars for whom Gates Millennium grants will be feathers in their caps and an impressive bullet-point on their resume. Still, if his aim is to discover the diamonds in America’s rough-and-tumble minority communities, Bill Gates just might want to give Bill Daniels a call.
Daniel McGroarty is senior director of the White House Writers Group in Washington, D.C., and author of Break These Chains: The Battle for School Choice.