Regulations Banning Race-Based Scholarships Proposed
By Mark Pitsch
WASHINGTON--Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander last week declared that most college scholarships awarded on the basis of race are illegal.
At the same time, he sought to limit the impact of that policy by outlining ways in which higher-education institutions could design aid programs that benefit minority students but still pass legal muster.
"A college president with a warm heart, a little common sense, and a minimum amount of good legal advice can make a special effort to grant scholarships to minority students," Mr. Alexander said.
Mr. Alexander sought to distinguish the proposed policy, the product of a seven-month review, from the position taken a year ago by Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Michael L. Williams. But it is substantially in agreement with Mr. Williams' opinion, which sparked a roaring controversy and led the Secretary to call for the review. The new policy says that colleges and universities that receive federal aid generally may not make awards "for which only students of a designated race or national origin may compete," but they may use race as one of many factors without violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
However, colleges can offer race-specific scholarships if they are specifically authorized by the Congress or if they are designed to remedy past discrimination.
In addition, the policy actively encourages institutions to establish "scholarships to create diversity," which use race as a criterion in an effort to enroll a student population "with a variety of experiences, opinions, backgrounds, and cultures."
Finally, it would allow schools to administer privately funded scholarships designated for minorities, as long as the money is used to fund aid packages granted to students under race-neutral policies.
He said the estimated 45,000 students who are now receiving scholarships based on race should not be affected, and that schools will have four years to bring their programs into compliance once the new policy becomes final.
The proposal is to appear in the Federal Register this week, and comments will be accepted for 90 days.
The issue first surfaced in December 1990, when Mr. Williams declared race-exclusive scholarships illegal in a letter to Fiesta Bowl officials, who planned to establish scholarships for black students. (See Education Week, Jan. 9, 1991.)
Mr. Williams later modified his statement, a move that served only to amplify confusion in the higher-education community.
Mr. Williams said he thought he was stating an existing policy.
Meanwhile, education and civil- rights lobbyists argued force fully that he had overturned a longstanding policy of allowing race-based scholarships. In fact, the few o.c.R. rulings on the issue had been inconsistent.
Julius Chambers, director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, last week called the Secretary's announcement "deplorable."
"The message sent by the Administration today is that the door of opportunity for a college education to those disadvantaged in this society by racial discrimination is being closed," Mr. Chambers said.
But the National Council of La Raza praised Mr. Alexander for his "creativity and sensitivity."
While calling for greater clarification of the rules, the Hispanic advocacy group said its "initial reading suggests that the proposed rules permit the continuation of badly needed financial assistance to Hispanic and other minority youth."
Mr. Alexander also received praise from Edward Elmendorf, vice president for government relations for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, who said the reaction of minority students to the proposed policy will depend on that of the higher-education community.
"In light of what could have been done, I think he's taken a thoughtful approach," Mr. Elmendorf said.
But Richard F. Rosser, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, said Mr. Alexander's announcement is "ambiguous."
For example, he said he does not understand why colleges can administer privately funded scholarships and not their own, or how the four-year transition period would work.
"Are they going to start directing us on how to define diversity?" Mr. Resser asked.
Richard Samp, general counsel of the Washington Legal Foundation, which is suing the government in an effort to establish that race-based scholarships are discriminatory, reacted cautiously.
"I think it's a stop in the right direction,'' he said. "It remains to be seen how this policy is carried out."
In a related development last week, the House Human Resources and Intergovernmental Affairs Subcommittee issued a report titled, 'The Fiesta Bowl Fiasco: Department of Education's Attempt to Ban Minority Scholarships," which argues that the o.c.a. should uphold what the panel contends is a 20-year tradition of seeing minority scholarships as a legal affirmative- action tool.