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Dept. of Education to Reinstate Minority-Only Scholarship Plans

By Elizabeth Shogren
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON

Reversing a controversial Bush administration policy, the secretary of education announced Thursday that colleges and universities can offer scholarships available only to members of minority groups.

The new policy will encourage institutions to offer scholarships based on race or national origin to remedy past discrimination by the institutions or to achieve diversity, Education officials said.

"We want the doors to post-secondary education to remain open for minority students," said Education Secretary Richard Riley. "This policy helps to achieve that goal in a manner that is consistent with the law."

The policy is based on the Clinton administration's interpretation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits recipients of federal funds from discriminating on the basis of race, color or national origin.

Aware of the legal complexities involved, however, the policy said the awards must be "narrowly tailored." For example, colleges should demonstrate that they have considered other methods of diversifying their campus before turning to minority scholarships.

The latest controversy over race-specific scholarships erupted in late 1990, when the head of the Education Department's civil rights office advised the officials of the Fiesta Bowl, a post-season football game, that it should not give scholarship money to be provided only to black players on the two football teams.

The Education Department official, Michael Williams, argued that the restriction would violate the civil rights law by discriminating based on race.

The decision catapulted Williams -- a relatively obscure Bush appointee -- into the limelight and made the White House nervous. Williams, who still stands by his interpretation of the law, said the issue made such a big splash "because I'm black, because I'm Republican and because the White House got scared."

To avoid further negative publicity, the Bush administration decided not to issue further rulings until the Government Accounting Office issued a report on the subject.

The report, issued last month, found that scholarships restricted to applicants based on race, sex, religion, disability or national origin amounted to only a small portion of all scholarships -- 5 percent in undergraduate schools, 3 percent in graduate schools and 10 percent in professional schools. Of those, at least three-fourths were granted on the basis of racial or ethnic background.

School officials believe minority-targeted scholarships help them attract students who might otherwise not be interested because of financial limitations or a perception that they would be culturally isolated.

Williams challenged the assumption that it will give more minority students access to higher education.

The only way to increase the total number of minority students going to college, he argued, is by offering better elementary and secondary education so more students are prepared for college.