Opportunity Beyond Basketball

January 22, 1994|By M. WILLIAM SALGANIK

Basketball scholarships and educational opportunities are not the same thing, although there's been an unfortunate tendency recently to confuse the two. Black college basketball coaches threatened a boycott (now deferred as talks continue) if the number of men's basketball scholarships was not increased from 13 to 14 per school.

I don't want to get into the merits of the basketball debate. But some of the debaters left the unfortunate impression that for inner-city kids, athletic scholarships are ''the only way out'' of poverty. That's wrong, and it's harmful. There are 1.2 million black college students, and about 2,500 of them are scholarship men's basketball players.

Certainly, some students would not have gone to college if they hadn't won athletic scholarships. But in the total picture of college opportunities, athletic scholarships are just a dot.

There are a lot of programs to help kids afford college: federal grants, loans, work-study, state scholarships, grants from the colleges themselves. There are so many programs that it's confusing, even for middle-class parents and kids. But all students should realize that there's a lot of help out there -- more help than most poor kids think.

What are the barriers to college attendance?

Despite the array of aid programs, money is still a serious problem for many. Some don't try college because they don't realize what aid is available. Kids need to be told that they shouldn't give up on college because of money, that there is help out there, and you don't have to be a Merit Scholar -- or a basketball star -- to get some.

Federally backed college loans are an entitlement -- the government puts up as much money as it takes to cover them. But the basic federal program of grants to low-income students, known as Pell Grants, is a ''quasi-entitlement.'' All eligible students get grants, but the amount they get depends on how much Congress appropriates. For the current school year, the maximum grant authorized by law is $3,700, but there's only enough in the budget to provide a maximum grant of $2,300.

When Pell Grants began in 1972, they covered two-thirds to three-quarters of college costs, according to Reginald Wilson, a senior scholar at the American Council on Education and a specialist on issues of minority access to higher education. Now, he said, the grants cover only about a quarter of costs.

The other barrier to college attendance has to do with academic preparation. Low-income and minority students are much more likely than others to attend troubled, under-funded urban public schools. And students often fail, through bad advice or poor decisions, to take advantage of what is offered.

That's one of the chief reasons that over the last decade, there's been an 18 percent increase in the number of African-American students going to college, but only a 1 percent increase in the number earning degrees, according to Frank L. Matthews, publisher of the magazine Black Issues in Higher Education.

''One of the most devastating things is tracking,'' Mr. Matthews says. ''By and large, black kids are tracked into dead-end programs.'' Some still try college, but without having taken rigorous college-prep courses, ''they're not prepared in terms of the analytical skills, the writing skills and the research skills.''

A recent study for the College Board found that a black student who had not taken geometry in high school has one chance in 40 of earning a college degree in four years. Blacks who took geometry had one chance in five.

Kids are already blanketed with general messages about staying in school, but they really need to hear -- perhaps from high-visibility figures such as basketball coaches -- that they should stay in school and sign up for algebra and foreign languages and lab sciences. In general, ''the kids who take the right courses make the necessary scores on the test'' to qualify for college, Mr. Matthews says.

I don't blame coaches for lobbying for more basketball scholarships. I don't even blame them (although I don't agree with them) for lobbying for lower academic standards for athletic eligibility.

But if they're really concerned about creating opportunities for poor and minority kids -- not just minority athletes -- to get college educations, it would be nice to see them doing things such as lobbying also for full funding of Pell Grants.

MA M. William Salganik edits the Perspective section of The Sun.

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