Widespread controversy has been sparked by the Education Department's pronouncements that placed constraints on the awarding of scholarships to minority students. The assistant secretary, Michael Williams, found it necessary to issue these new guidelines to underscore the illegality of ''racial-exclusive'' scholarships.

Such characterizations seriously misrepresent the preeminent criterion for awarding scholarships: academic performance. All students, regardless of their racial or ethnic group, must meet the academic requirements (i.e, SATs, high school grades etc.) for admission to a college before they can be awarded a scholarship.

The scholarship debate has created the false impression that minority status was the preeminent or exclusive criterion for such scholarships and that an academically unqualified minority student would be eligible for such a scholarship mainly because of his minority membership. Academic performance is the overriding criterion for awarding scholarships, and minority status or economic need invariably are secondary criteria.

It is ironic that such a furor would occur when: (a) scholarships have fallen sharply as a major source of financial aid to students as greater emphasis has been placed on loans, and (b) the proportions of both low- and middle-income black students enrolling in college have steadily declined. When colleges everywhere are trying to obtain a more culturally diverse student body, one would hope for federal policies that encourage, not discourage, the admission of academically qualified students, especially those from racial or ethnic minorities. ROBERT B. HILL Director, Institute for Urban Research Morgan State University Baltimore

Mary McGrory chides Assistant Secretary of Education Michael L. Williams for having "a literal mind" and acknowledges that "perhaps in constitutional theology, Williams was right" in declaring that racial discrimination by public schools is unconstitutional {column, Dec. 20}. But, she says, we shouldn't "fix what ain't broke," so couldn't we just ignore this little matter of constitutional theology?

Did Mary McGrory ever before dismiss constitutional adherence to civil rights as theology? Lots of Southerners suggested for years that their system "wasn't broke," but Mary McGrory quoted Jefferson and Lincoln to them and thundered that the Constitution is the supreme law of the land, even if its implications are sometimes uncomfortable. Are we now to understand that what she meant was that government should do what seems best at the time and ignore "constitutional theology"?

At least Mary McGrory is honest. She acknowledges that if the Constitution bans discrimination against blacks, it also bans discrimination against whites.

DAVID D. BOAZ Executive Vice President, Cato Institute Washington

By supporting Michael L. Williams' statement that ''we must be very careful about making any decisions ... in this country that relate to individuals based upon race'' {''Turnabout on Scholarships,'' editorial, Dec. 19}, The Post stands against affirmative action and makes the suggestion that our society should pretend it is ''colorblind.'' Scholarships for students of color are necessary reparations for a long history of exclusion from educational institutions. The U.S. school system -- the so-called ''great equalizer'' -- has failed people of color. Recent hype has equated affirmative action for educational access with ''illegal race discrimination'' and has ignored the facts.

Court-ordered desegregation in the 1960s and '70s mandated that colleges provide financial assistance to students of color. Racial equality, however, has not been achieved. The irony of the attempt to now outlaw minority scholarships is that even with such scholarships, the proportion of African Americans in college declined in the 1980s. The college participation of middle income African Americans fell from 53 percent in 1976 to 36 percent in 1986.

While policy makers deny youth of color their right to an education and systematically track them toward downward mobility, those who propose ''colorblindness'' condone and perpetuate overt racism.

ROBIN TEMPLETON Student Coordinator, National Coalition For Universities in the Public Interest Washington

Richard Cohen's Dec. 19 op-ed column on scholarships based on race raises important issues, but on one point it misses the mark. A racist (or anything-ist) nation does not owe amends, it owes repair of the continuing damage. This country has not yet repaired the damage; new generations are handicapped in coping with today's world by what was done to their parents and grandparents. The heirs (not necessarily descendants) of the original perpetrators profit today from yesterday's injustice.

When President Bush says "colorblind," what he's saying is: "Let's keep the advantages we still have." C. LEE BURWASSER Landover