The Education Department said yesterday it will prohibit colleges that receive federal funds from awarding scholarships solely on the basis of a student's race, a major reinterpretation of civil rights law that was immediately challenged by education groups.

Michael L. Williams, assistant secretary for civil rights, said such "race-exclusive" scholarships are discriminatory except when a college has been specifically ordered by a court to remedy past segregation. He said the ban does not apply to federal scholarship programs Congress has established for minorities, privately administered ones or programs that consider race as one of several eligibility criteria.

"Anything where race is a determining factor is a race-exclusive scholarship," whether designated for racial minorities or white ethnic groups, Williams said at a news conference.

Williams could not say how many scholarships would be affected by the ruling. Many colleges typically reserve a small number of scholarships for minority students in an effort to increase their enrollment.

Richard F. Rosser, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, called for an urgent meeting between higher education leaders and officials from the White House and Education Department. He said college officials "were trying to do what we thought was clearly a national priority" -- to educate more minority students.

David S. Tatel, a Washington lawyer who directed the civil rights office during the Carter administration, said Williams was changing regulations based on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that have been in force since it became law.

"My view is that as long as minorities and non-minorities have access to a college's overall scholarship program, the fact that a small portion is designated for minorities is not a problem," Tatel said. "They do not deny overall scholarship opportunity to whites."

"This is a crude and blatant attempt to seriously cripple, if not kill outright, the well-intentioned efforts . . . to provide educational opportunities for minority students," said Benjamin Hooks, executive director of the NAACP.

"We will fight this directive with every possible means at our disposal and we have instructed our attorneys to immediately begin studying the possibility of bringing a legal challenge," he said.

Under the most extreme penalty the department can impose, a college found to discriminate could lose federal funding in the form of student aid and research grants.

Richard Komer, deputy assistant education secretary for civil rights, said the department has received five complaints concerning discriminatory scholarship programs within the last year, and all are pending.

Two came from the Washington Legal Foundation, a conservative advocacy group. John Scully, its counsel, said he filed complaints in May about scholarship programs for minority students at the University of Florida and Florida Atlantic University.

Williams said he expects colleges to comply voluntarily with the regulations and will not conduct a systematic search for discriminatory programs. His office is obliged, however, to investigate whatever complaints it receives.

The scholarship issue surfaced last week when the department revealed that Williams had warned organizers of the Fiesta Bowl football game in Tempe, Ariz., about their plans to contribute $200,000 in scholarships for minority students at the two schools that will play in the bowl New Year's Day.

Williams said the two schools, the University of Louisville and University of Alabama, could not award the scholarships themselves because they receive federal funds, but the Fiesta Bowl could do it because it is a not federally funded. Williams said his office is continuing to advise bowl officials on the matter.

Williams said department officials had decided on the reinterpretation on their own and had not cleared it with the White House. President Bush has been sharply criticized by civil rights groups for his veto in October of new civil rights legislation that he said would result in racial quotas.

Education Secretary Lauro F. Cavazos, who resigned yesterday, was an advocate of making college more accessible to minority students. But Williams and Komer said the department has never issued a broad policy statement on scholarships designated for minority students -- something they plan to do soon -- and has made inconsistent rulings in the past. "The fact of the matter is we have been on both sides of this issue," Komer said.

Komer said two of three "letters of finding" issued by the department since 1983 have approved scholarships for minority students, including one last year approving a University of Colorado program for minorities. Also upheld in 1983 was a program that excluded a Cuban American because "he wasn't the right sort of Hispanic," Komer said.

Congress could direct the department to permit the scholarships. Rep. William D. Ford (D-Mich.), the incoming chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, said the panel "will be taking a closer look at just what the administration has in mind."

Rosser said that word of the department's decision is "already creating all kinds of chaos. We have students applying for scholarships right now, and we may have a number of financial aid programs in question. What kind of impact is this going to have on minority students, in particular?"

"I hope the upshot is colleges and universities keep on doing what they are doing," said Robert Atwell, president of the American Council on Education, an umbrella organization of higher education groups. "We don't see any reason for them to change and we hope the Office for Civil Rights will change its position on sober reflection."