Published November 1, 1999
America’s most celebrated college dropout had a great opportunity to boost higher education, help needy students, and strike a blow against racism, but he blew it. If Bill Gates had paused to chat with Teddy Roosevelt before launching his breathtaking $1 billion program of college scholarships last month, America would be a better place.
Gates, widely applauded, but only gingerly criticized, program for “minority” scholarships deserves further scrutiny. Unless significantly amended, his criteria for aid, if carried out, will further enflame racial tensions, delay the achievement a colorblind society, and subvert the cherished virtue of reward by merit.
But let’s start at the beginning.
The Gates Millennium Scholarships for thousands of high school seniors over the next 20 years are intended to produce more quality scientists, engineers, doctors, and educators from among America’s minorities, who, he claims, are woefully underrepresented in college. His commitment to arbitrarily preferred groups is bound to increase racial resentment.
His vague concept of “diversity” confuses the laudable diversity of cultural talents that strengthens the nation, with the self-conscious racial diversity that divides it by breeding arrogance and envy.
The debate over diversity is not new. In 1915, a time when America, not unlike today, was pondering problems of the melting pot, Teddy Roosevelt said: “There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism….The only absolute way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of its continuing to be a nation at all, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities.” (New York speech, October. 12, 1915.) What would TR say today about African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, and other hyphenated-Americans?
By restricting his grants to specified minorities, principally blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians, Gates seems gloriously oblivious to the social consequences of his program. Racial preferences by whatever name, tend to corrupt the putative beneficiaries and antagonize those who are discriminated against.
Gates’ scholarships also violate Martin Luther King’s admonition to judge persons only on merit, not by the color of their skin. Both TR and King believed in a colorblind America—a genuine melting pot. Ward Cannerly, chairman of the American Civil Rights Institute, in an elegant understatement calls Gates plan of “using race to screen out worthy applicants…a mistake.”
By allowing “diversity” to trump merit, the plan is beset by serious academic flaws. A Gates student must have a 3.3 grade-point average—good in theory, but hardly a reliable guide. Our public high schools vary widely in academic quality and many of them inflate grades to foster self-esteem.
The Gates applicant must also submit an essay on his aspirations and commitment to community service and be nominated by a teacher or community leader. Such essays often reflect the talents of friends or teachers, and letters of reference are often unreliable.
To make matters worse, Gates explicitly excludes the best single measure for predicting success in college—SAT scores and similar college entrance exams. Ruling out standardized tests, admittedly less than perfect, and relying on soft criteria like dubious essays and nomination letters, is bound to yield many mediocre students whose performance will contribute to the further dumbing down in American higher education today.
Shelby Steele of the Hoover Institution put it well: “All these ingenious assaults on merit in the name of diversity suggest a loss of faith in a racial equality grounded in merit….The ‘inclusion’ we most need now is…intellectual respect—which can be gained through merit alone.” Thomas Sowell, also from Hoover, said he strongly opposes the Gates scholarships because, among other things, “race preferences undermine incentive among those he is trying to help.”
On the crucial issue of financial need, Gates is on the mark. And there are reliable ways to measure such need. Thousands of academically qualified high school students cannot afford a good college education. They deserve help and encouragement. Why, then, does he not provide scholarships to all needy students—regardless of race, creed, or color? Why discriminate against white or Asian students? The poor white coal miner’s daughter in West Virginia deserves financial help every bit as much as an equally qualified black from Harlem.
Happily, the serious flaws in the Gates program can be corrected by two simple measures: award scholarships on academic merit and financial need alone, and rely more fully on standardized academic tests. So amended, Bill Gates’ generosity will strengthen higher education.