Gates opens route for have-nots

October 1, 1999

Microsoft founder Bill Gates has pledged $50 million a year for 20 years in scholarships for American minorities - a total of $1 billion, the largest charitable gift in the history of higher education.

The grants will help send 20,000 low-income, high-achieving blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and American Indians to college.

"This country is in an incredible time period, when advances in technology are quite breathtaking," Mr Gates said. "Is everybody getting a chance to benefit from that? The answer is no."

The gift is the first of a new foundation set up by Mr Gates and his wife, the $17 billion Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the wealthiest philanthropic body in the United States.

Mr Gates, who has a personal net worth of about $85 billion, has made smaller personal contributions to United States universities including Harvard, which he attended but did not complete his course. The Gates Millennium Scholars programme will pay for more than 1,000 full undergraduate scholarships per year, plus living costs where necessary, beginning autumn 2000. Applicants must have a relatively high minimum grade-point average, demonstrate financial need, promise to perform community service and write a 500-word essay outlining their career goals.

While participating, they must also continue to maintain good grades. Some may also qualify for graduate scholarships in education, engineering, library science, mathematics or science. The programme will not be run by the Gates Foundation, but jointly by the United Negro College Fund, the Hispanic Scholarship Fund and the American Indian College Fund. Other minorities, including Asians, will also be eligible.

"What can you say?" said Richard Williams, director of the American Indian College Fund, responding to news of Mr Gates's largesse. "Wow."

The programme is launched as minorities continue to have trouble paying spiralling university prices and many schools end racial preferences that are meant to address past discrimination.

Thanks to his vast fortune, Mr Gates is claimed by a number of US universities, even though he never graduated. He and his wife have given $20 million to Duke University, which she attended, $20 million to MIT and $20 million to build a computer science lab at Cambridge, England.

Mr Gates and Microsoft vice-president Steven Ballmer, a Harvard classmate, have also given $25 million to Harvard.

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