In 1965 Congress, at the behest of the Johnson administration, created a special program of aid to "developing" institutions of higher education. It was understood that a significant share of the aid would go to historically black colleges and universities. These schools then as now were needy and continued, in a period of fitful and often half-hearted desegregation, to be an important source of higher education for blacks. But the enabling act, out of whatever sense of reserve or uneasiness, did not specify that the aid or any part of it was to be for black schools. The term "developing" was thus in part a euphemism, but in a deeper sense stood for a substantive compromise as well.

Now there are moves in Congress to do away with this obliqueness, in order to be more exact in the spreading-out of the aid. The amount of money involved in this so-called Title III program has never been large, but it has been important to the receiving institutions -- and in recent times there has been new competition for it. Among the aggressive claimants have been community colleges, many of which also serve large numbers of blacks. The historically black colleges and universities had 47 percent of the appropriation in fiscal 1978, but only 34 percent in fiscal 1984. Their loss of share has prompted increasingly elaborate efforts to protect them. The 1980 amendments to the Higher Education Act, of which Title III is a part, put a floor under annual aid to the historically black schools. In appropriations acts since, Congress has earmarked certain sums for them, in effect raising the floor. Now Congress is again rewriting the Higher Education Act (it will otherwise expire), and proponents are urging a further step.

Rep. Augustus Hawkins, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, and Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois are leading sponsors of a bill to set up a new subdivision of Title III explicitly for historically black colleges and universities. In an opening toward other constituencies, they would also reserve certain other sums each year for "Hispanic institutions," "Native American, Native Alaskan or Aleut institutions" and "institutions serving Native American Pacific Islanders, including Native Hawaiians residing in the Pacific Basin." The House higher education subcommittee has now taken most of these provisions into its version of the bill; there has been no markup in the Senate.

There is no argument that the 104 schools grouped as historically black are deserving of national help. They now enroll only 20 percent of the nation's black college students, but they occupy a unique position, and they are home to the survivors. Their students still earn almost 40 percent of the baccalauerate degrees that go to blacks in this country, and according to one recent study they make up more than 50 percent of those who go on to earn PhDs.

The issue with Hawkins-Simons is not the aid it would channel, but how it would channel that aid. For good reasons it writes bad law; from the best of motives it puts an unabashed racial classification back in the statute books. As justification and for protective purposes as well, it includes a finding that "the current state of black colleges and universities is partly attributable to the discriminatory action of the States and the Federal Government" in the past, and that "this discriminatory action requires the remedy" of increased aid today. That is an effort to meet the test of the courts that race-conscious actions of the government are legitimate if they are meant to overcome the effects of past discrimination.

In other programs over the years, Congress has used poverty and other nonracial characteristics as proxies when seeking to direct aid to blacks. That is how it was originally done in Title III. Proxies can never be as exact as outright racial designations, but they get close enough. To write a new generation of racial distinctions into the law is simply wrong.