George Kettle, a multimillionaire "whitey from Virginia," has made sixth-graders at a predominantly black D.C. school an offer: If they'll finish high school, he'll guarantee their college tuition.

Is it, as the Falls Church real estate executive hopes, an offer they can't refuse?

It depends. In New York, where industrialist Eugene Lang made the prototype offer six years ago, the sixth graders at P.S. 121 took him up on it. Come fall, two-thirds of that class will start college -- this in a Harlem neighborhood where three students in four fail to complete high school. But most of these youngsters will be going to public colleges -- schools they could have attended even if Lang hadn't intervened.

Similarly, the children at Winston Educational Center in Southeast Washington wouldn't have had to worry about financing their college education. The brightest of them could earn academic scholarships, the poorest could expect local or federal assistance and all could come up with the cash to attend the University of the District of Columbia, where next fall's tuition and fees will run $634 a year.

If they do go to college, the money, as generous as Kettle's offer is, won't be what makes the difference.

What will matter is whether members of this sixth-grade class come to see themselves as something special. Lang understood that money was only part of the solution. Shortly after he made his electrifying offer (in an impromptu substitution for the commencement speech he had prepared) he hired an assistant to keep tabs on "his" kids and later established the I Have a Dream program.

Something similar will have to happen for Kettle's kids, or many of them will likely fall by the academic wayside.

I don't mean to play down Kettle's inspired offer. The 57-year-old executive of Century 21 has demonstrated a most welcome sense of social responsibility. Unlike Lang, who supplied the inspiration, Kettle has no special connection with the Winston school. He chose the school on the advice of Calvin Woodland, a local hero who runs an athletic program -- backed in part by Kettle contributions -- in the Southeast neighborhood.

"I'm the whitey from Virginia," he told his young black beneficiaries. "If you will make a commitment to work and study hard in school, I'll make a commitment to you that each and every one of you, without exception, can go to college. I'll help you alter your life."

He explained later that he has reached the point in his life where merely having a pile of money isn't enough. "You get to a point where you have far more materially than you could ever use," he said. "You ask yourself if this is success, and the anwer was 'no.' If I could change a few lives, then my own life will have been a success."

It is the same sentiment that has inspired business and civic leaders in some 15 cities across the country to follow Lang's example. In some cases, the guarantees are provided by rich individuals, in others by less affluent contributors who pool their resources. Sometimes the guarantors follow the Lang formula; in others, they come up with their own schemes.

The Washington Post, for example, is offering to reward Eastern High School students with $500 per semester in scholarship money for every semester they earn all A's and B's -- up to $4,000 to be used for postsecondary education or training. Publisher Donald Graham will also pay for a part-time administrator/counselor to work with the faculty, students and parents at Eastern.

In every case, the test will be the ability of the financial angels to convince a group of students not merely that college is a real possibility but that they themselves are special.

Tuition guarantees can help to produce that feeling of specialness, and it would be nice to have a lot more rich executives willing to put up money. It would be nicer still if the rest of us, inspired by their example, would find ways to make our own contributions of time and attention toward "changing a few lives."