Nothing new about scholarship bias

February 19, 2004|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- An amusing habit of young people is their tendency to think that their generation invented every idea that sounds cool.

Such must have been the goofy mind-set that inspired a student group at Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I., to offer a scholarship for which only white students need apply.

"Evidence of bleaching will disqualify applicants," says the scholarship application, which requires a recent photo "to confirm whiteness" and an essay on "why you are proud of your white heritage."

This is new? I'm old enough to remember when whites-only educational opportunities were quite common in this country -- and they were not a joke.

As you might have guessed, this scholarship is a joke, but only partly.

It is intended to protest affirmative action. It is offered by the campus' student group College Republicans, whose president, Jason Mattera, 20, has been juggling phone calls and e-mail inquiries ever since news wires picked up the story Sunday from The Providence Journal.

The scholarship's amount grew from $50 to $250 over the weekend and continues to grow like a telethon's tote board.

Mr. Mattera, a junior from Brooklyn, N.Y., says it is white students today who are feeling the backlash of discrimination wielded against them by scholarships for nonwhites. "We think that, if you want to treat someone according to character and how well they achieve academically, then skin color shouldn't really be an option," he told the Journal.

Yet, Mr. Mattera, who is of Puerto Rican descent, is a recipient of a $5,000 Sallie Mae Fund scholarship for Hispanic students.

How does he square accepting a scholarship for nonwhites with his opposition to preferential treatment for nonwhites? Well, Mr. Mattera apparently believes the myth that only unqualified people benefit from affirmative action. He told CNN's Daryn Kagan, for example, that his Hispanics-only scholarship was OK because he earned it with his excellent grade point average, not "just because I'm Puerto Rican."

In fact, when affirmative action works the way it is supposed to, it does not guarantee results to the unqualified because of their race or ethnicity. It only opens doors to enable a broader pool of people to prove how qualified they are.

For that reason, among others, neither the university nor the leaders of the state's Republican Party want anything to do with Mr. Mattera's whites-only scholarship. Patricia Morgan, the state's GOP chairwoman, called the scholarship "disturbing."

Besides, if scholarships were the standard for what amounts to discrimination today, a lot of people, not just whites, would have reasons to feel resentful. Take a look at just a few of the other groups that FinAid.com found receive preferences under currently available scholarships simply as a consequence of their condition of birth:

Left-handed students: The Frederick and Mary F. Beckley Scholarship will award up to $1,000 to left-handed students who will be attending Juniata College, Huntingdon, Pa.

Little people: The Little People of America association offers a scholarship for its members, who must be 4 feet 10 or less.

Tall people: Tall Clubs International offers a $1,000 scholarship to women who are at least 5 feet 10 and men who are at least 6 feet 2, presumably in their stocking feet.

Just-average people: The David Letterman Scholarship, established by the late-night TV star, awards scholarships to telecommunications students at his alma mater, Ball State University, who are "average students who nevertheless have a creative mind."

Catholics named Zolp: The aptly named Zolp Scholarship offers full tuition for four years at Loyola University in Chicago for Catholic students whose last name happens to be Zolp, as documented by their birth certificate and confirmation certificate. First-name Zolps need not apply.

Anyone named Scarpinato: Full attendance at Texas A&M University is available for anyone whose last name is Scarpinato -- by birth or by marriage, so you still have a chance to marry into this scholarship.

Descendants of alumni: There are lots of these, of course, but one of the more unusual enables selected incoming freshmen at Hood College in Frederick, Md., the opportunity to pay the same first-year tuition as their alumnus parent or grandparent. Without inflation.

Twins and triplets: Lots of these, too. But one of the more unusual is offered by Lake Erie College in Painesville, Ohio, where each twin gets the scholarship in alternate years. Alas, I would not have qualified for any of these scholarships, even if I had married a Scarpinato.

But resentment is a waste of time. Instead of worrying about somebody else's opportunities, Mr. Mattera and Company should take advantage of the opportunities they have.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Thursdays in The Sun.

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