THE RIPPLES are still traveling from the day in 1980 when Eugene Lang made his big splash. Mr. Lang is the millionaire who told a graduating class of sixth-graders in Harlem that he would pay their college tuition, if only they stayed in school; he backed up the promise with a team of social workers who opened accounts for the kids and tracked them from day to day with intensive counseling. His approach drew national attention and has been much imitated by individual benefactors and by businesses. Now comes the most dramatic imitation yet. New York Gov. Mario Cuomo has proposed a legislative program that would offer a Lang-style college tuition guarantee to all seventh-graders in New York State whose families fall below a certain poverty level and who attend public college in the state.
It sounds mind-boggling in scope; about 50,000 seventh-graders would probably qualify every year, costing the state an annual $50 million to $60 million. Can the energizing magic of the Lang windfalls work on so broad a scale? Mr. Cuomo's education adviser says the motivating force behind the legislation was the feeling that "a youngster's future shouldn't depend on the happenstance" of having a millionaire industrialist choose his classroom. It's a hard argument to gainsay, especially when one thinks of the frustration of, say, the unlucky fifth-graders immediately following Mr. Lang's chosen class. No matter how popular this becomes as a way to donate to charity, there aren't enough businesses or millionaires in America to cover every class at every low-income school.
But another line of argument says that it wasn't the money that kept Mr. Lang's sixth-graders in school; it was the personal attention, the endlessly reiterated assertion that these kids had a future. Without it, the tuition guarantee -- Mr. Cuomo calls it a Liberty Scholarship -- might just deteriorate into another four years of entitlement, an extension of a troubled public school system.
A statewide tuition plan could conceivably have Mr. Lang's clout if it worked in tandem with a web of dropout prevention programs. New York, in fact, has been busy developing a wide range of such programs in recent years, teaming high schools with colleges and students with mentors. Surely, it would help such mentors in their work if they could hold out assurance of an offer such as Mr. Cuomo's. In that sense the Liberty Scholarships would simply restore the initial premise of government need-based student aid: if you qualify for college, the government will see to it that lack of money is no bar. That promise has been eroded by aid cuts, tuition hikes and the increasing reliance on loans, which frighten off poor and minority families. Mr. Cuomo's plan, if it should pass, would test the proposition that lack of money is the main reason those aid programs don't work now for everyone. If that's true, then the remedy is worth the price tag.