THE BUSH administration has taken it upon itself to advise the nation's colleges that many scholarships limited to minority groups are likely violations of federal law. Many such scholarships exist (not even the Reagan administration challenged them), and higher education and civil rights groups are predictably outraged. But this time around the administration is right.

The rule is that institutions receiving federal funds (as almost all colleges do) cannot discriminate on such bases as race. The president's people would be in a stronger position if, before attacking the scholarships, they had shown the same zeal in attacking the racial and ethnic isolation and enduringly unequal opportunity that most such scholarships have been set up to overcome. You might also wish, for the sake of the reasoned debate the administration professes to want, that its advice had been a little less showy, transparent in its politics and gratuitous.

Instead it was issued in connection with the Fiesta Bowl, the football game to be played Jan. 1 in Tempe, Ariz., between the universities of Louisville and Alabama. Bowl officials had announced they would give $100,000 to each school to be used for scholarships for minority groups. The gifts were meant to atone for the referendum in which Arizona voters refused to make Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday a public holiday. No one asked the federal government's opinion; assistant secretary of education for civil rights Michael Williams sent out a letter and press release anyway.

But the fact that the administration took a position it didn't have to doesn't necessarily detract from the position. Mr. Williams did not make the sickly and mocking argument of the Reagan years that this society should suddenly, only now, be a color-blind one. He acknowledges that increased access on the part of minority groups to higher education is an important goal. He says that universities can legitimately tilt their admissions and student-aid policies toward minority groups by using proxies -- by giving preference to the poor, for example. In the name of diversity they are also free in making their decisions to take an otherwise forbidden factor such as race into consideration -- but race cannot be the only factor. The scholarships may mainly go to members of minority groups; they can't be for those members exclusively.

That's not just a paper distinction; it preserves a vital principle that some who dismiss it should know better than to throw away. The old policy was not to disturb designated scholarships where they were not excessive and were thought to contribute to a better student mix. The main argument against the new policy is the reverse: that it will hurt the mix, make it harder for members of minority groups to get to college and harder for colleges to recruit such aspirants. But the job can be done, and better, without the explicit racial and other designations that are offensive and will ultimately defeat the purpose for which they are being used. Except in special circumstances, they ought to be dropped.