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Sallie Mae, NAFEO Team Up

Sallie Mae, NAFEO Team Up

To Reward Excellence in Writing

There’s something a bit thrilling about learning that the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education and the Sallie Mae Fund, the charitable arm of school loan leader Sallie Mae, are teaming up to fund scholarships rewarding excellence in writing. It could just be the fact that I’m a writer myself and know first-hand that writing skills can smooth the path to a rewarding, though not necessarily lucrative, career. But my usually healthy skepticism seems to have gone on holiday. Sallie Mae may indeed make a pretty penny off of the loans: $1.45 billion in net interest income in 2005 on a $127 billion portfolio of managed student loans, to be exact. But I still feel this urge to break out the pompons and burst into cheers.

he amounts of money dispersed by the Writers of Passage program are certainly small in the context of the fund’s total charitable giving. They provide four $25,000 grants, with $5,000 going to the student essay writers and the rest to the schools to aid in recruitment and retention.

Five thousand dollars represents a real dent in tuition costs at Clark Atlanta University, which totaled $12,314 in 2002-2003. And the amount completely or nearly covers tuition at the other beneficiary schools: Alcorn State University in Lorman, Miss., with a 2001-2002 tuition of $4,100; Morris College, a Baptist institution in Sumter, S.C., with tuition costs of $6,483 in 2002-2003; and Sojourner-Douglass College in Baltimore, a school for adult learners with 2002-2003 tuition costs of $4,280.

“It’s going to make a very large difference in my life,” says Michael Brockington, the winner from Alcorn State. The Baltimore native is a computer science major and rising sophomore in the Honors Program.

“I come from a low-income background,” he says. “My mother’s unemployed. My father’s deceased. In my neighborhood and in my age group, I’m the only male in college. The only one. So by me receiving this scholarship, combined with my financial aid, it’s giving me new hope that my dreams really will come true.”

Brockington and the other essay writers — Chaqua Williamson of Clark Atlanta, Sharon Shivers of Sojourner-Douglass College and Yarbough Miller of Morris College — will find themselves sharing their dreams with potentially many others because that $20,000 each school receives for recruitment and retention is a gift with the potential to give for years to come. Even small-to-medium institutions such as Clark-Atlanta (nearly 5,800 students in 2002-2003), and Alcorn State (3,100) can use extra dollars for student support. As for very small schools such as Morris (844 students) or Sojourner-Douglass (433), the level of largesse has the potential to create significant gains.

But here’s where it’s important to take a pause because, good intentions and positive potential aside, Writers of Passage represents no more than a drop in the enormous bucket of need that exists in
this area.

FairTest: The National Center for Fair & Open Testing, an advocacy group that challenges flaws in standardized testing procedures, has sounded a note of warning regarding the SAT writing test scores of Black and Hispanic students.

According to FairTest, these groups score, on average, 80 to 100 points lower than White students on the new SAT II-Writing Test. Among the 12 most popular SAT II tests, only one, the SAT II: Literature Test, has a larger Black-White score gap.

FairTest has maintained for years that the SAT consistently undervalues the academic potential of women, minorities, “English learners” and students over the age of 25. The organization argues that the cultural content, multiple choice format, high-speed pace and rewards for strategic guessing favor upper-crust, upper-income students.

Unfortunately, the SAT is still the ruler by which all students are measured. And by this measure, it seems clear that writing has yet to become a “rite of passage” for the lower-income minority students who are the fastest-growing population in the nation’s secondary schools.
The Sallie Mae Fund announced recently that it had renewed the Writers of Passage program for a second year. Fund spokesman Hugh Rosen noted that NAFEO is seeking additional sponsors to increase the numbers of students and schools impacted.

We should celebrate the news, but remain aware that it’s nowhere near enough.

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