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Colleges Column

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Last month, William Kennedy, the Albany-based author, received a Pulitzer Prize award of $1,000 for his third novel. This month, a graduating senior at Washington College in Maryland will receive a literary award 35 times larger than that amount.

The Sophie Kerr Prize, offered to the graduating senior at Washington College who shows "the best ability and promise for future fulfillment in the field of literary endeavor," is the largest literary award in the nation and one of the largest literary awards in the world, according to John Holdren, an assistant professor of English at the college.

Sophie Kerr, Mr. Holdren explained, was a native of Maryland's Eastern Shore who wrote "light fiction" and "had no message to leave the world."

But upon her death in 1965, she left the college a $500,000 endowment, stipulating that half of the interest be used for the literary prize.

The fund has brought some well-known writers to teach on the campus. This year, the interest will be used to provide the talented senior a cash award of about $35,000.

Arguing that knowledge "is now the basic capital, the fundamental requisite" that is as crucial to the country's future "as land or oil," a report from the American Council for Policy Analysis and Research, an organization of 25 Washington-based higher-education associations, claims that policymakers need to begin addressing some of academe's most pressing needs in order to maintain national economic strength.

The report says that higher education continues to be a major industry, comparable in annual outlays ($70 billion) to the automobile or communication industries.

But colleges and universities need to improve their physical plants, one third of which were built before 1950; they must also obtain increased support for graduate education and the purchase of new equipment in every realm, from microcomputers to "modern devices for medical schools and researchers."

Other major areas of need cited in the report include revitalizing college faculty members, obtaining more federal funds for student financial aid, and generating new support for foreign languages, international exchanges, and guidance for the growing number of foreign students attending U.S. colleges.

In an attempt to assess the status of humanities education at the nation's colleges and universities, the National Endowment for the Humanities has asked a 30-member panel to study all aspects of college programs, from trends in course enrollments, majors, and student ability to exemplary curricula.

In a letter to the panel members, William J. Bennett, the endowment's chairman, wrote that Americans "have read and heard a great deal in recent years about how the humanities are ailing on our nation's college campuses," but "there seems to be little agreement as to the causes of the illness, even less as to its cure."--sr

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