Business help needed for educational reform

Sylvia Porter

May 06, 1991|By Sylvia Porter | Sylvia Porter,1991 Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, Calif. 90053

When President Bush late last month unveiled his plan to "reinvent" U.S. education it was no surprise that business was involved. The business community is being called upon to spend up to $200 million to help the president design a new education system.

It's not charity. Business needs well-educated employees. The intelligence and productivity of its staff determine the fate of a company. Businesses recognize this. They increasingly are becoming involved in business-education partnerships, from kindergarten through continuing adult education.

An unusual example of the increased involvement of business is a joint effort of the United Negro College Fund and New York's Citicorp, which well may become a prototype for others. The program is unique in the intensity of its "hands-on" approach.

Each year the UNCF/Citicorp Fellows Program provides financial aid, professional guidance and personal help to talented minority students selected by the United Negro College Fund from among 40 predominately black private colleges nationwide. In addition to an annual $3,200 scholarship, renewable for four years, each student (or Fellow) is paired with a Citicorp business executive (called a Mentor). The bank executive serves as a private adviser on career planning and individual development, says William J. Heron, a group executive for Citicorp/Citibank.

Citibank already was providing financial assistance to any student attending a UNCF college who qualified for a loan. The Mentor program and scholarships were added in 1984.

The requirements are stringent. Heron says the Fellows are well-rounded students who are academically talented, with 3.5 high school grade point averages. They must have participated in community and after-school activities. Because these students are required to communicate regularly with their Mentors throughout their college careers, they also must possess good oral and written communication skills. Mentors are seasoned business executives who are willing to commit to this four-year relationship.

To match Mentors and Fellows, the program scans personal biographies, looking for common threads. Location, similarity of backgrounds or career interests, even having the same home town can interconnect a Fellow and his or her Mentor.

The Mentor is expected to help the student recognize his or her potential, evaluate options, make a career choice and learn how to fulfill it. Using a network of contacts and acquaintances, the Mentor can arrange for summer employment, career internships and interviews with experienced professionals in the Fellow's field of interest. The program also offers travel opportunities. The plan requires regular attendance at program events such as an annual spring conference. The Mentor is a personal adviser who helps the Fellow deal with new experiences and maximize strengths.

This is not a Citibank recruiting program, Heron says. There is no requirement for a major in business or finance. Nevertheless, if a Fellow does have an interest in the financial services industry, the Mentor might try to focus the student's interest on a career with the corporation.

At any given time there are 80 students in the program, with 20 new students each year. There have been three graduating classes to date.

Students must maintain a "B" (or 3.0 point) grade average. A student who falls below is placed on probation and is expected to qualify in the next semester in order to stay in the program. There have been few failures, Heron says.

Is this good business? You bet it is. Banks and other businesses in the major cities now recognize that most of their employees are being recruited from minority populations. Of equal importance, their customers, too, increasingly come from the non-white population.

For years, businesses have been sending executives into classrooms, arranging for students to visit offices and factories and donating services and funds to the schools. Goaded by the Business Roundtable, a public policy organization, top executives of major corporations have been taking a second look at the business-education coalition. They seem to have concluded, as did Citicorp, that you need to do more than throw money at a problem in order to solve it.

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