The planets came into alignment Thursday, the heavens opened and minority students hit the number.

And quite a number at that. Bill and Melinda Gates, he the head of Microsoft and America's richest man, announced that their philanthropic foundation is committing a billion dollars in scholarship money for minority students in math, science, engineering and teaching.

And if you don't think that's worth a little hyperbole, you haven't been talking to Bill Gray, head of the United Negro College Fund, which will be administering the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's largess.

"This changes the landscape of higher education opportunities," the former Pennsylvania congressman exulted from Seattle, where he and the Gateses made the announcement. "This is $50 million a year for 20 years, which means that we can not only make changes but sustain them.

"Twenty-thousand kids will be Gates Millennium Scholars. That's a 10 percent add-on to where our normal growth would take us. And the add-on consists of a very special group of kids, kids who've been trying to live the right life, following what the preachers and teachers have been telling them to do . . . and who were facing difficult prospects because their families don't have much money. That problem has been solved."

Under the Millennium Scholars program, youngsters are eligible to be selected for full-tuition scholarships if they sustain a high school grade point average of 3.3 or better, come from a low-income family and show leadership in extracurricular or community activities.

The program -- for which students cannot apply directly but must be nominated by their teachers, principals or counselors -- is available to members of all racial minorities, but focuses on African Americans, Hispanic Americans and Native Americans.

"From where I sit, I can tell you how difficult it has been for some of these kids," Gray said in a telephone interview shortly after Thursday's announcement. "They end up choosing their colleges not on the basis of their interests or abilities but on what their families can afford. They often work two or three part-time jobs to keep up with college expenses, wind up overburdened and unable to perform up to their academic abilities, and, too often, drop by the wayside. The financial barrier is absolutely the biggest barrier [to college entrance and success] for these low-income minority kids -- and this gift removes it. All they have to do is send us a letter of admission to the college of their choice and a financial statement saying what assistance the school is willing to provide, and we make up the difference.

"And here's the kicker. The kids who are awarded the Millennium scholarships can major in anything they want to. But if at the time they are ready to graduate they want to pursue a graduate degree in math, science, engineering, computer technology, library science or teaching, they get tuition for that too.

"Now you think about that. Last year, only one percent of the Ph.D.s in math were awarded to African Americans. We're talking about having the ability now to increase that number by maybe 40 percent, with comparable increases in the sciences. A lot of very bright young people who have been interested in teaching have felt compelled to enter more lucrative fields when they look at the student loans they'll have to pay back. Now they can teach and help bring along another generation."

Bill Gray is happy. So am I. I am excited that this huge grant (matched only by Ted Turner's $1 billion pledge to the United Nations as the biggest in U.S. history) is aimed specifically at helping to close the achievement gap between whites and minorities, particularly in the sciences.

But I am pleased as well that Bill and Melinda Gates have chosen to make this commitment based on their view of what is needed to make America what it ought to be.

The tendency has been to talk about -- to argue about -- the matter in terms of what America owes its disadvantaged. Much of the bitterness over affirmative action, I believe, is the result of one side requiring the other to acknowledge guilt, to admit that it's their fault that minorities continue to face a variety of social, educational and economic problems.

I don't argue the truth of the indictment, only the disutility of requiring confession as the prelude to help.

I have no idea how Bill and Melinda Gates feel about affirmative action. I know only that they see a serious problem and have committed a chunk of their considerable resources to help solve it. That's a billion times better than guilt.