More than 4,000 college students in the Washington area risk losing their scholarships under a new U.S. Department of Education ruling that forbids most schools to award financial aid solely on the basis of race, state and campus officials said yesterday.

In Maryland, Virginia and the District, students and administrators complained that the new policy could undermine years of efforts to attract more minority students at a time when they are increasingly underrepresented in higher education.

Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder sent a letter yesterday to President Bush asking him to reverse the department's decision and contending that the ban on "race exclusive" scholarships would have a "chilling effect" on all minority education programs.

"If you want them to stop coming, just stop the money," said Ulysses Glee, financial aid director at the University of Maryland at College Park, where 318 students are on minority scholarships this year.

Maryland and Virginia, both required by federal officials to desegregate their college systems, award about 1,600 students nearly $2.5 million in minority scholarships each. Many private colleges and universities in the region, including the District, also use grants to recruit minorities.

College and university administrators said the Education Department's directive was so ambiguous that they could not determine exactly how many scholarships they would have to eliminate.

The policy, announced this week, exempts scholarships that are part of court-ordered desegregation strategies. The Bush administration has not clarified whether the policy would affect students currently getting aid, or how strictly the policy would be applied to aid based partly on a student's race. College officials say they are still confused about whether privately funded grants would be subject to the ruling.

Institutions that violate the ban could, in extreme cases, forfeit all federal subsidies, including other student aid and research grants.

For Kimberly Boulware, the stakes are more personal.

Boulware, a College Park senior from Greenbelt, said she chose the school because she won a Banneker Scholarship, a grant that pays full tuition and fees for talented black students. A government and politics major, she has applied to five law schools, all of which offer special scholarships for minority law students.

Without a Banneker Scholarship, she would not have been able to afford College Park, she said, and without a scholarship next year, she will not be in law school.

"I am very certain I would be working and not going until I can pay for it," said Boulware.

"Colleges like Maryland use scholarships to recruit," said Nikki Tarlton, another Banneker Scholar at College Park. "It'll be hard to recruit minority students if there aren't these scholarships."

High school students said yesterday that the federal ruling could influence their plans, too.

"So many of the kids I know who went to university got there because of these kinds of scholarships," said Carla Brown, 17, a senior at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Prince George's County. "I'm from a single-parent family, and I was expecting to use the same scholarships."

If they are unavailable, she said, she probably will apply only to predominantly black colleges instead of to George Washington University, as she has planned.

In Maryland, officials said they believe minority students at public schools are not in immediate danger of losing aid because the state remains under a college desegregation agreement with the federal government.

Although the plan expired in June, the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights is unlikely to rule on whether Maryland's public institutions have satisfied enrollment goals for at least a year, according to George Funaro, Maryland's deputy higher education commissioner.

If Maryland is released from desegregation requirements, Funaro said, "there is a distinct possibility we would be vulnerable."

Federal officials have found Virginia "in substantial compliance" with a similar desegregation agreement that expired in 1986, but they have not entirely cleared the state.

James E. Lyons, president of Bowie State University, said, "We are dealing with two contradictory federal mandates." Until now, he said, the Education Department has encouraged "other-race grants" as a desegregation tool. As a result, Bowie, a predominantly black Prince George's campus, is paying $300,000 this year in scholarships to 205 white students.

Johns Hopkins University President William C. Richardson said the ban would frustrate private schools' minority recruiting efforts. Hopkins provides special scholarships in several fields, including engineering and music, in which minorities have been scarce.

Barry Dorsey, associate director of Virginia's State Council of Higher Education, called state grants for minorities necessary to attract more such students into higher education. The federal decision, he said "is a change in their philosophy, which has been to eliminate hundreds of years of historical injustice by awarding special scholarships."

For the past three years, Ted Delaney, a PhD history student at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, has received a $10,000 annual state grant for minority graduate students. Delaney, formerly the only black teacher in a North Carolina high school, is now one of only two black students in his program.

"There are almost no blacks in graduate schools. I suspect one of the reasons is most people think it is cost prohibitive," said Delaney. "It is extraordinarily important for the students -- both for white students as well as black students -- to see blacks as teachers and in roles of authority."

William and Mary said it also receives $76,000 from the Education Department for the Patricia Roberts Harris scholarship program for needy minority undergraduates.

About 200 students at the University of Virginia receive minority scholarships, according to John A. Blackburn, dean of admissions.

In light of the ruling, James Madison University in Harrisonburg has put on hold a $25,000 scholarship drive for black students, according to Alan Cerveny, director of admissions.

In the District, the financial aid director at American University said the school might have to abolish its Frederick Douglass scholarships, a program more than a decade old that gave grants totaling $1.1 million to 138 black undergraduates this year.

While Howard University, a historically black school, does not spend any of its own money on grants based on race, it does receive private money for such scholarships. A university spokesman said he was unsure how those would be affected.

George Washington University has four kinds of scholarships, totaling more than $40 million, that are designated for D.C. high school graduates -- 95 percent of whom are black.

Georgetown officials said they believed the school would be relatively immune from the ban because none of its scholarships is awarded entirely on the basis of race.

Staff writers Stephanie Griffith and Keith Harriston contributed to this report.