THE ASSISTANT secretary of education who announced last week's new federal approach -- now under review -- to college scholarships said that he did so to clarify a muddy policy. The clumsiness of the effort, which we did not take sufficient account of in our own initial response, has destructively and hurtfully had the opposite effect. The highly political issue has now gone to the president, who has asked his staff for a "quick readout" in order to be able to settle it. A broader statement of purpose and good faith by the White House is much needed.

The proposed new approach would have much less direct effect on the distribution of scholarships -- who actually gets them -- than many of its critics imply. But we now see that it could, given the political context in which it was undertaken, have a very damaging indirect effect: the signal sent might discourage not only applicants but also institutions that might fear legal or other governmental impediments in perfectly constitutional efforts to channel certain grants to poor minority youths. The apparent new position -- the view that in most cases it is probably illegal to reserve scholarships exclusively for minority groups -- was announced not with the elaborate care that such a complex subject requires but almost casually, not to say dismissively, in a two-page departmental press release about a letter to the organizers of the Fiesta Bowl football game.

In addition, the department was unprepared -- still is -- to answer many legitimate questions its venture into the subject raised. As higher education and civil rights groups protested, the notion got abroad that some large number of scholarships might be in jeopardy. Students were understandably frightened, and so, by the end of the week for their different reasons, were some presidential advisers.

No one knows how many scholarships are reserved nationwide for members of minority groups; the number is thought to be sizable. In the past such scholarships were mostly accepted if not encouraged by the government. That was true both where schools were trying to correct past illegal segregation and where they were trying simply for good social and educational reasons to diversify their student populations. The new doctrine, as laid out by Assistant Secretary Michael Williams, is that private parties can still earmark scholarships for minority group members if they choose, and so can the federal government; the Supreme Court has shown special deference to Congress on such matters. But colleges (other than those under court or other orders to desegregate) generally can't reserve such scholarships if they receive federal funds as almost all do, because the law forbids recipients of federal funds to discriminate on the bases of race, ethnic origin and the like, and this would be such discrimination. States apparently can't reserve scholarships for minority groups either, though this is one of the areas left unclear.

Mr. Williams says, however, that colleges and states are free to use the familiar proxies -- poverty and other disadvantage -- to continue to give the same scholarships to essentially the same recipients, and they are free as well in the name of diversity to make race a factor in the awarding of grants; race just can't be the overriding one.

We continue to think that where it is possible to get these students the financial support they need and deserve without writing back into law racial preferences and exclusions that can so easily be turned to ugly purpose, it is an important social value. And we also believe that the scholarship aid that would be affected by the new statement could readily be achieved by other means, such as those we mention above. But there is no easy answer to the critics' continuing objection that Mr. Williams' position would nonetheless make harder what is already one of the hardest problems many colleges and universities face -- the recruitment of blacks and members of other minority groups. In part, they say, this is because of the destructive message it would send.

What is that message? In part it is (to black and other minority aspirants) that the government and society at large don't care about their aspirations and won't help. But in part it is also a message to the white majority: the distorted notion that, abetted by government, some large body of unqualified minority applicants is busily snatching away valuable positions that the majority deserves and would otherwise get. This is as unfounded as it is hurtful. The president needs to set the matter straight.