A funny thing happened to Chris Goodwin on the drive north from Alabama to begin his freshman year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: He enrolled at the University of Maryland Baltimore County instead.
Wooed as aggressively as a hot sports prospect, the 16-year-old honors student was snatched away by a program for gifted blacks in science that offers a full scholarship, a free computer and a strong support network for one of the most endangered groups in higher education.
"My mother and I changed our minds within three days of hearing about the Meyerhoff scholarship program," said Chris, a shy young man from Fort Davis, Ala., near Montgomery. "It was very last-minute stuff, all done by express mail."
Started in 1989 with a $522,000 grant from the Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Foundation, the program enrolled 19 black males from Maryland in its first class. This year -- aided by $100,000 from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration -- it admitted 16 blacks, including eight women and two students from out of state.
The full-court press on James Christopher Goodwin illustrates the increasing competition among colleges and universities for the small pool of young blacks with the right combination of high SAT scores, excellent grades and an aptitude for science or engineering.
"He's got a file drawer full of offers from schools," said his mother, Eva Goodwin. A National Achievement finalist at 15, Chris earned a combined SAT score of 1,310 out of a possible 1,600, worked as a page for the governor of Alabama, played in the marching band.
Nonetheless, Mrs. Goodwin, a social worker and teacher, describes her son as "not a genius -- he's just an ordinary, average, bright kid who got off to a good start."
Erika Jones -- a 17-year-old physics major from Silver Spring who graduated from Paint Branch High School in Montgomery County with perfect grades -- was accepted at Johns Hopkins, Swarthmore, Princeton, the University of Rochester and Vassar before she joined the Meyerhoff program this year.
"The competition's very intense," said Freeman A. Hrabowski III, vice provost at UMBC and director of the program. A 39-year-old black mathematician with a doctorate from the University of Illinois, he boasts that his Meyerhoff scholars "are in the top 1 percent of black students nationwide."
William H. Ramsey, director of a minority recruitment program in science and engineering at MIT, estimates there are only 800 U.S. minority high school seniors annually with scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test high enough for them to be admitted to the top schools.
Overall, black success in earning technical degrees has been discouraging. From 1979 to 1988, the number of blacks becoming Ph.D. scientists and engineers dropped 20 percent, and the group now gains less than 2 percent of all doctorates granted in those fields.
The problem? Although high cost is certainly a major factor, said Dr. Hrabowski, "Most educators agree that blacks are not succeeding in the sciences in college because they are not adequately prepared, and they aren't receiving the academic and emotional support they need."
"Few are in schools that could give them the skills and motivation needed," he said. "And for black males especially, high academic achievement is seen as not necessarily desirable. Everybody praises the great basketball player, the musician."
The Meyerhoff program approaches the problem from the top -- accepting black students who have beaten the odds and excelled academically, educating them in a nurturing environment and sending them out into the world of work to inspire others.
"There is something higher to achieve than a Mercedes and drug money," said Lamar "Soul" Taylor, 18, a Landover resident majoring in electrical engineering. "I want to go back to the schools and bring others in."
The students accepted into the program represent diverse backgrounds, some from families with two professional parents, some from single-parent urban homes. Dr. Hrabowski said 11 of the first 19 scholars are from homes where at least one parent has a bachelor's degree.
Ahmad Ridley, 19, who lives in West Baltimore with his mother, mentions black males who "shy away from school. Let's do something easy, they say." He graduated as valedictorian from Polytechnic Institute in 1989 with all A's. His UMBC grade point average last year was a perfect 4.0.
The black students sign a contract, agreeing to maintain a B average in a science or engineering major and making a "moral commitment" to complete both a master's and a doctorate or a medical degree.
In return, the top 10 Meyerhoff scholars receive a full four-year scholarship, worth $6,000 for in-state resident students. The others get a combination of lesser aid.