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This year, about 20 students from the University of Southern California are helping to finance their education by working in the guidance offices of 17 Los Angeles inner-city high schools.

As members of usc's peer-counseling program, the students are hired and paid by the university's admissions office, but they work under the direction of the college advisers in the high schools.

Because many counseling programs had to be cut back in the wake of Proposition 13--the state's property-tax-limitation measure--the peer counselors are providing valuable manpower, according to Jack Wright, college adviser at Los Angeles's Benjamin Franklin High School.

But more important, Mr. Wright says, the college students serve as role models. "They reinforce the idea that college is a realistic goal," he says. "They can say, 'I come from a poor family, too. I'm like you, and I go to usc"'

The Association of American Colleges has launched a campaign, "Get a Liberal Education, It's the Course for Life," to urge America's teenagers to consider a liberal-arts education when it comes time to make college plans.

"Students today feel a tremendous pressure to acquire 'marketable skills' in college," comments Mark Curtis, the organization's president. "So they treat a college education as though it were a job training course. That short-changes them and it short-changes society, too."

The aac campaign--which has been funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Northwest Area Foundation--includes 60-second public-service announcements on radio, print advertising, and posters and other print materials distributed to member colleges, high schools, public libraries, and youth-services organizations.

The Ford Foundation has awarded grants of $25,000 to 24 community colleges in 19 cities to help them improve academic programs so that students will be better prepared to transfer to four-year institutions.

The grants, totaling $600,000, represent the first stage in the foundation's new "Urban Community College Transfer Opportunities Program,'' foundation officials said last week. Next year, the program will provide grants of up to $250,000 to those schools that develop four-year transfer projects that could serve as regional or national models.

"For large numbers of the disadvantaged, community colleges are the main entry points to higher education," said Franklin A. Thomas, president of the foundation. "This program was prompted by our conviction that academic quality is as important in two-year open-admissions colleges as it is in the better known four-year institutions.

"By helping the colleges receiving awards to strengthen their academic programs, we hope that more of their students will be able to move through the higher-education pipeline and obtain the baccalaureate degree."--sr

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