THE ADMINISTRATION tried yesterday to turn invisible on the divisive issue of reserving college scholarships for minority groups. To quell the controversy its own Education Department created, it reached for a neutral position. A new policy statement was silent on whether the federal government can restrict student aid to minorities, as it does in a few minor programs. It stood off as well from the question of whether state and local governments can impose such restrictions, saying only that the issue had been covered by the courts and was therefore beyond executive branch discretion.
As to universities, its revised view is that under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, they can't restrict aid to minority groups using their own funds but can administer restricted scholarship programs that are privately funded. The administration also has created a four-year "transition" or grace period during which there will be no active enforcement of the new rule. The idea, Assistant Secretary of Education Michael Williams said at a news conference, is not to put any student or university at immediate risk. This should be reassuring.
The main shift yesterday from what Mr. Williams had announced before had to do with university programs. He had earlier said they could not administer scholarships even privately financed for minority groups only, but most could have gotten around that ban, as even protesting higher education officials conceded. As Mr. Williams himself originally suggested, they could change the terms of the scholarships, give them to needy or otherwise disadvantaged applicants and achieve the same result, and they remained free in the name of diversity to make race or a comparable factor one consideration in the awarding of aid; it could just not be the overriding one. Mr. Williams, who issued the revised policy at the direction of the White House, continued to say yesterday that "I think we must be very careful about making any decisions, significant decisions, in this country that relate to individuals based upon race." He is right about that. He also said he had been "naive" in the earlier declaration of policy, and on that he's more than right.
Increased access to higher education is one of the great equalizers in this society. No administration should oppose it, and no administration can afford to appear to be an opponent. Any policy statement on scholarships needs to be set in the cement of commitment to this goal. There is still more for the administration to say on this subject.