LOS ANGELES, OCT. 1 -- In the first federal finding of discrimination against Asian Americans in higher education, the Department of Education said today that the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) has given illegal preference to whites over Asians in admissions to its graduate mathematics department.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), who has pressed for accelerated federal action on several Asian-American discrimination complaints, said the finding "marks a turning point in efforts to stop discrimination against Asian-American students by colleges and universities."

UCLA Chancellor Charles E. Young said the university would appeal the finding to an administrative law judge because "we firmly believe that racially neutral criteria were used to make these decisions." But he acknowledged "the Asian community's legitimate concerns about illegal discrimination," and noted that 75 other UCLA departments were cleared of discrimination and eight were asked for better records after the Education Department's investigations proved inconclusive.

Kathryn Imahara, staff attorney for the Los Angeles-based Asian Pacific American Legal Center, said complaints about discrimination in college admissions often brought remarks like " 'Aren't there enough of you in there already?' Racist things like that." She said, "It's nice to know that we're not being paranoid."

The Education Department said in a statement that its Office of Civil Rights found during a 30-month investigation "a statistical disparity in the rates of admission to the mathematics department on the basis of race, an inconsistency in how Asian and white applicants who received the same evaluation ratings were treated, and insufficient evidence to show a nondiscriminatory basis for this pattern."

Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Michael Williams, who was praised by Rohrabacher for accelerating the investigation after his appointment in July, said UCLA will be required to ensure equal future treatment in mathematics admissions and to offer admission to five Asian-American applicants the department decided were unfairly rejected.

Williams said the department's investigations, which are proceeding at the University of California at Berkeley and at Harvard University, are "extremely complex and complicated," and he declined to predict when they would be complete. Rohrabacher has asked the Senate Appropriations Committee to set aside $500,000 to complete the investigations by Dec. 31.

Asian Americans, benefiting from cultural and family emphasis on hard work and academic achievement, are admitted to many major universities in numbers far higher than their proportion of the general population. Some Asian Americans have suggested that universities use unwritten quotas, similar to those used against Jewish applicants before World War II, to keep their numbers from growing even larger.

Young criticized federal investigators for "completely dismissing" the even larger number of foreign-born Asians at the university in calculating compliance with anti-discrimination rules.

A UCLA spokesman said the ethnic origin of the school's estimated 23,000 foreign and American undergraduates in the fall of 1989 was 49.3 percent non-Hispanic white, 25.7 percent Asian, 16 percent Hispanic and 7.1 percent black. The 11,500 or so graduate students were 63 percent non-Hispanic white, 21.9 percent Asian, 7.9 percent Hispanic and 4.9 percent black.

Under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, recipients of federal funds such as UCLA are prohibited from discriminating on the basis of race, color or national origin.