A helping hand for minority students

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Grand Rapids Press

Proposal 2, the anti-affirmative action ballot initiative passed by Michigan voters in 2006, has made it more difficult for non-white students to get to -- and through -- public universities in the state.

A new organization called the Imagine Fund can lessen that problem, by legally providing scholarships to minority students with help from private donors. The fund is a prototype of the sort of private-sector response needed to help historically disadvantaged people get an education, and a chance at a better life. A clear illustration of the problem facing minorities can be found in enrollment figures for this year's freshman class at Grand Valley State University. The number of black, Asian, American Indian and Latino students coming into the school dropped by 30 percent over last year's enrollment. These incoming freshman are the first to feel the effects of Proposal 2, which banned consideration of gender and race in public contracting, public employment and public education. Enrollment numbers for other state universities aren't yet available.

In addition to ending affirmative action for purposes of admissions, Proposal 2 did away with race- and gender-based scholarships that are publicly funded. GVSU has such a fund, the Bert Price Awards scholarships, that provided full rides for academically qualified minority students. In 2006, $5.7 million from the fund was awarded to 825 students. Beginning this year, the scholarships must come to an end, though current scholarship recipients will receive the money until they complete their education. The money will be funneled into new scholarships tied to where people live and their incomes, instead of race.


The decline in minority freshman enrollment at GVSU no doubt has many causes, including fierce competition from other schools. However, the new limits placed on minority scholarships has certainly fed the drop-off, as students and their families struggle to pay fast-rising college bills. The climbing college costs conspire against minorities in particular, who as a group come from less financially-well off backgrounds.

The Imagine Fund was established last year to address the reality that people of color will find it more difficult to get through college now that schools are prohibited from offering them financial help based on race. Set up as an independent non-profit, the fund can legally consider race, gender and other factors in handing out awards. The organization expects to begin offering scholarships in the 2009 school year.

The group, which has thus far collected $225,000 in donations, is patterned after the College Success Foundation in Washington state, a response to an anti-affirmative action initiative passed there in 1998. Since its founding in 2000, the College Success Foundation has granted 4,000 scholarships and has raised $300 million -- an indication of the kind of success the Imagine Fund could have with the right leadership and support.

The support should come first of all from businesses and foundations that favor additional help for minorities and other historically disadvantaged groups. Many business groups fought Proposal 2, and lost.

Not lost, however, is the opportunity to help young people succeed. The law has put an end to some of those efforts in public institutions. That makes it all the more imperative that private donors pick up the slack.