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Seizing My Opportunity

By William Raspberry
Monday, February 28, 2005; Page A17

Hers was such a simple request, Laura Stone must still be scratching her head at my response.

Stone, a volunteer with the D.C. College Access Program (DC-CAP), wanted me to speak to a group of local high school students "to encourage them to go to college and help them understand the wide range of options that college could make available to them."

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And since I'm always running off at the mouth about the importance of education, she must have thought me a natural for the chore.

But instead of an instant and enthusiastic "yes" to her request, what she got was the eruption of years of frustration -- and this confession: I don't know what to say to a youngster with no particular plans or prospects who suddenly is given the financial means to attend college and who cannot see it as a not-to-be-missed opportunity.

I know how to talk to youngsters who are looking for guidance as to what colleges (and college majors) they might consider, or who need help getting ready for college or career, or who want to know the relationship between my own education and my professional success. Mentoring, role-modeling, experience-sharing -- no problem. But what do you say to students who don't see affordable college as an opportunity?

The particular opportunity DC-CAP is trying to promote comes out of the congressionally enacted tuition assistance program that allows D.C. residents to attend any participating colleges in the nation while receiving up to $10,000 a year to make up the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition. It also provides up to $2,500 a year for private colleges in the Washington area or for historically black colleges.

The program doesn't make college free, but it does make it affordable. The privately funded nonprofit DC-CAP tries to help translate the opportunity into reality.

Thousands of young people have taken advantage of the break, with the result that the college enrollment rate here has increased significantly since the program was established in 1999.

But thousands of others don't even see the opportunity that seems so obvious to us. Surely their numbers include the "knuckleheads" of Bill Cosby's impatient description, kids who won't try to speak or dress or behave in ways that might encourage someone to give them a break. The comedian has been particularly harsh regarding parents who won't take these youngsters to the woodshed and make them understand that they are blowing their life chances.

As I have said before, Cos is right about the blown chances -- right also that it is past pointless to blame the resultant failure on racism.

But the youngsters who don't see the opportunity Laura Stone wants me to talk about will, in a few short years, be the parents Bill Cosby is talking about. What will they have to say to their children about grasping opportunity?

I think the present generation of black leadership has to bear some responsibility for the fact that we have so many young (and not-so-young) people who are expert at spotting inequity but virtually blind to opportunity. The leadership's purpose, I'm sure, was to keep pressure on "the system" to broaden opportunity for those who have too little of it. But one of the unintended consequences is that too many youngsters have concluded that they don't have a chance, and that there's nothing they can do about it.

The opposite is true, of course. For the first time in black American history, what we do is a greater determinant of our future than what is done to us. We need to teach that and preach that and shout that -- to our young people and to ourselves. We need to take note of the immigrants, including those from Africa and the Caribbean, who see opportunity where too many born here see only disparity.

I could make that speech to willing listeners, to ambitious youngsters who need a boost, a bit of advice or someone to run interference. But to a high school kid who is surrounded by poverty that is the result of inadequate education, to a youngster whose own legitimate prospects are somewhere between slim and none -- to ask me to spend 45 minutes with this kid and get him to appreciate "the wide range of options" college could make available -- sorry, Laura. I just don't know what to say.


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