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All-Win Situation

September 12, 1986

Business has direct and indirect stakes in public schools. Companies need competent workers. The nation needs enlightened citizens. To those ends, business leaders in Boston have promised what amount to scholarships for any qualified graduate of that city's deteriorating public school system who goes on to college. The business leaders also guarantee a job for any of those students who finish college.

These promises will motivate many students to hit the books and stay in high school despite Boston's 50% dropout rate. The program might work in other cities as well--even those with substantially lower dropout rates.

The Boston program represents an unusual commitment. Forty firms, led by New England Mutual Life Insurance Co., have endowed a $5-million financial aid fund, and 350 companies have pledged jobs for the future college graduates.

Another private program, the Boston Compact, guarantees jobs for high-school graduates in exchange for improvements in the city's troubled school system. The business leaders who organized the compact say that it is a success. So do the 2,800 students hired for summer jobs and permanent jobs since 1983.

The program is effective, in part, because Boston's school system is small. Only 3,000 seniors graduate annually--about half the number who start the 10th grade. Of the graduates, about 50% go on to college.

The Los Angeles Unified District, which is 10 times the size of the Boston district, would require a greater commitment of jobs and money. In Los Angeles 26,000 seniors graduate annually from the public schools.

Although an equitable, systemwide program would help all youngsters, a less expensive limited program could target the youngsters who are most in need of a reason to stay in school.

California's farsighted business leaders need not wait for a grand community effort. They can follow the lead of Eugene Lang, a wealthy industrialist, who has pledged to pay the college tuition of an entire class in New York City.

Lang made the promise in 1980 to 61 sixth-graders at PS 121, his alma mater of 50 years earlier. None dropped out, although nine moved away--good odds in a system where 75% of the poor, minority students quit school. Fifty students expect to graduate in June. As many as 25 will attend college at Lang's expense, encouraged not only by his thousands but by his belief that despite hard odds they have a chance.

Lang's generosity has become a model. In Dallas promises have been made to help 1,000 black sixth-graders at six schools go on to college. Dallas residents are the first outside New York to benefit from Lang's concept, but he says that 20 cities--including San Francisco and Denver--contemplate similar programs. The business communities should give strong support.

Commitments like Boston's and Lang's can pay off for the students, schools and businesses. A diploma from the city's public schools guarantees college aid and a job. Employers are guaranteed a larger pool of better-educated employees. It's an all-win situation worth duplicating in other cities.

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