Title III of the Higher Education Act was enacted in 1965 as a special program of financial assistance for "developing" institutions of higher education. The program was created primarily to aid historically black colleges and universities, which for decades were either excluded from federal and state aid programs or received substantially less public support than their white institutional peers. "We conceived it primarily to strengthen the Negro colleges in the South," wrote Rep. Edith Green in testimony presented in 1966.

The authorized program has never been fully funded, and the majority of the dollars in the limited appropriations were siphoned off to white colleges. During the first 10 years of Title III, historically black colleges received between 50 to 60 percent of the total appropriation. But pressure mounted to expand eligibility, and in 1984 only 34 percent of Title III support went to historically black colleges.

Private black colleges, which have survived on sacrifice and leftovers, can least afford reductions in financial support. These institutions are already asked to do more with substantially fewer resources than their counterparts nationally. Endowments per student at private black colleges are less than half the average for private colleges nationally. Over 90 percent of private black college students receive financial aid. Tuition costs at black colleges are two- thirds and faculty salaries are three- fourths of the national average for private colleges. Nevertheless, public and private black colleges award 40 percent of the undergraduate degrees earned by blacks nationally.

Title III funds are crucial to the survival and strengthening of the historcally black colleges. Accounting for 5 to 10 percent of the operating budgets of these institutions, Title III makes possible on black college campuses the growth and development experienced by majority white campuses.

Rep. Augustus Hawkins (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Education Labor Committee, and Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) are sponsoring a bill -- The Post faulted it in its editorial "Drawing Lines" of Oct. 17 -- that would fund specific programs over a 10-year period to help black colleges improve their facilities, strengthen their management systems and develop new curricula. This proposal establishes subdivisions that reserve certain sums for minority colleges and universities. Therein lies the critical issue -- is it wrong to use race-specific language to redress racial imbalances?

If we were living in a racially neutral society, we would have no use for racial classifications. The fact is that for more than 100 years historically black colleges were isolated from mainstream public support. There is no racially neutral process to redress that fact. The burden of more than a century has not been lifted in just the past two decades since the Developing Institutions Program began.

Is the predominant race of an institution permissibly a factor to look at in terms of targeting scarce public dollars? Consider a few question that raise this issue. Have not black institutions gone through something extra to get where they are today? Do the black colleges not bring to learning a different and needed perspective?

Is there not a special need for more black doctors, lawyers, engineers and teachers? Does the whole society somehow benefit because these colleges elevate poor black youth to productive and creative citizenship?

There are no easy answers to these questions. If the answer to all or any is yes, then a classification based on race should be reasonable, purposeful and permissible. To answer all in the negative would be difficult, given our present state of education and experience. Yet that is precisely what opponents of race- specific language would require.

If nonracical euphemisms, such as "developing" or "struggling colleges," are used to avoid race-specific language, other nonblack institutions will gobble up the resources as in the past, leaving the black colleges to limp along. This is inefficient and requires the government to expend $3 to deliver $1 to the black colleges. Moreover, these needy institutions can ill-afford to have their unique historical missions and hard-earned achievements lumped with other colleges with strong but substantially different claims for support.

The whole history of the Developing Institutions Program indicates that without a racial classification, black colleges, the very institutions Title III was primarily created to strengthen, receive substantially fewer funds. Why must we do indirectly and ineffectively through euphemisms what we can do directly by providing direct assistance to our nation's historically black colleges and universities? Both noble and racist arguments to avoid racial classifications threaten to homogenize us to death.