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Advocates Praise Riley for Supporting Race-Exclusive College Scholarships

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WASHINGTON--Advocates of race-exclusive college scholarships are praising Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley for indicating earlier this month that he supports the practice and that he wants to quickly resolve questions about its legality.

"Here we have a clear statement by the Secretary that the department is going back to the way they've interpreted minority scholarships for years,'' said Richard F. Rosser, the executive director of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

Opponents, meanwhile, have expressed dismay over statements on the subject that Mr. Riley made in recent letters.

"I'm disappointed,'' said Richard Samp, legal counsel for the Washington Legal Foundation, which has challenged the constitutionality of scholarships set aside for minority groups. Such awards, he contended, are "simply'' a device used by colleges to attract affluent, well-educated minority students.

In letters to Charles A. Bowsher, the comptroller general of the General Accounting Office, members of Congress, and some 7,500 college and university presidents, Mr. Riley on March 4 took his first step since taking office toward resolving the two-year-old controversy over the scholarships. (See Education Week, March 17, 1993.)

Since December 1990, when then-Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Michael L. Williams stated that race-based scholarships are illegal under most circumstances, the Education Department and higher-education institutions have been operating without a clear policy on the matter.

In December 1991, then-Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander issued proposed regulations stating that race could be one factor among many in awarding scholarships to promote racial diversity.

Make No Changes

In his letter to the college presidents, Mr. Riley said "there is no need to make any changes to your student financial-aid programs in anticipation of the department's final policy.''

The Secretary added that "it is critically important for postsecondary institutions to make significant efforts to provide access to higher education for a diverse population of Americans.''

"I believe race-based scholarships can be a valuable tool for providing equal opportunity and for enhancing a diverse educational environment for the benefit of all students,'' he continued.

Mr. Rosser said Mr. Riley's statements suggested that race can be a sole factor in scholarship-award decisions. "He's saying it's perfectly proper to have race-based scholarships,'' Mr. Rosser said.

That interpretation appears far from universal, however. For example, Dan Goyette, the director of financial aid at Marquette University, noted that the Secretary's letter is not a final policy statement.

"Unless the Department of Education comes out with a policy that is backed by Congressional legislation saying this is what the situation is, I won't be comfortable,'' Mr. Goyette said.

Mr. Samp said regardless of the department's final policy, the matter probably will end up in court.

"This obviously is going to be decided by the courts, and it doesn't make a whole lot of difference where Mr. Riley stands on the issue,'' he said. "Obviously, for enforcement it would help to have him on the right side of the issue.''

Study Delayed

In his other letters, Mr. Riley asked the G.A.O. to expedite its study of race-exclusive scholarships, and asked members of Congress to do what they can to facilitate its completion.

Wayne Upshaw, an assistant director of the G.A.O. who is working on the study, said the Secretary's letter probably will have no effect on the timing of the study, which is expected to be finished this summer.

"We have always been working as expeditiously as we can on this issue given our resource constraints,'' he said. "I really don't know whether the letter is going to materially affect the time frame.''

Because the G.A.O. was unhappy with the response rate to its survey of institutions' policies on race-based scholarships, Mr. Upshaw said, the office plans to conduct about six site visits to supplement its research.

Originally, he said, the study included no site visits and was to have been completed this spring.

Mr. Upshaw also said that although the G.A.O. had been asked to analyze the impact of such scholarships, it probably will not.

"Until we know the quality of the data we get, we don't know exactly the kind of analysis we can apply to it,'' he said.

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