The controversy over the Education Department's decision prohibiting most colleges from reserving scholarships for minority students is the latest round in a long-standing national debate over the use of racial preferences designed to help disadvantaged minorities.

On one side are those who contend that the Constitution and federal civil rights laws envision strict colorblindness, prohibiting any differing treatment based on race. This group, which supports the Education Department's position, sees even "benign" racial classifications as repugnant to civil rights laws and the constitutional guarantee that all citizens are entitled to equal protection of the laws.

On the other side are those who take the position that, as Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun wrote in a 1978 opinion, "In order to get beyond racism we must first take account of race." This side looks at the country's history of slavery and decades of discrimination against minorities and believes that some race-based preferences are not only justified but necessary to eradicate the continuing effects of such treatment.

The fight has been played out earlier over such issues as school admissions quotas, government set-asides for minority businesses, and affirmative action efforts by governments and private employers.

The debate over minority scholarships comes at a time when the law on affirmative action is in a state of flux, as the Supreme Court, always split by the subject, appears to be growing increasingly conservative.

To those who support the Education Department's position, a reversal of the position it has taken since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, the meaning of that law and the Constitution is clear: There should be no discrimination, even if well-intentioned, in any of a college's programs, including financial aid.

The law and regulations "are crystal clear that such race-based scholarships are prohibited," said John Scully of the Washington Legal Foundation, which filed complaints with the department in May about scholarship programs for minority students at the University of Florida and Florida Atlantic Universi- ty.

Scully and others point in particular to the court's 1978 decision in University of California Board of Regents v. Bakke to strike down a medical school program that set aside a specified number of places for students from minority groups. The justices said then that race could be taken into account as one factor in promoting a more diverse student body.

"It seems to me the case is rather impregnable against these kinds of scholarship programs," said conservative legal scholar Bruce Fein. "At best, under Bakke, you could add race as a 'plus' factor in competing for the scholarship funds. These aren't 'plus' factors; these are quotas in the sense they had quotas in Bakke that were overturned."

Scully said a Supreme Court decision two terms ago in City of Richmond v. Croson that struck down the city's program reserving 30 percent of contracting work for minority businesses "puts another nail into that structure of civil rights law to make it even more clear, to hammer through that in fact race-exclusive scholarships are impermissible."

Those who oppose the Education Department's move say that when Congress in the civil rights legislation prohibited racial discrimination in higher education, it intended to protect minorities from being excluded from such financial aid programs, not to invalidate measures that give minorities an extra boost.

They cite the department's long-standing interpretations of the law and note that Congress has had ample opportunity to correct the situation if it meant to disallow race-exclusive scholarships.

"You could literally number in the thousands the number of people in the government who knew this went on and knew of Title VI {the relevant section of the civil rights law} and never dreamed this was unlawful," said Eric Schnapper of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Marcia Greenberger of the National Women's Law Center said the Education Department's approach failed to take into account the "overall scholarship picture" in which, for example, scholarships set aside for the children of alumni could exclude many minority students.

David S. Tatel, who headed the department's civil rights office under President Jimmy Carter, said that in assessing the legality of race-exclusive scholarships the office traditionally has looked at "the scholarship program as a whole, not at the individual pot of money, and if a modest pot of money is set aside for minorities in the context of an overall scholarship program that's available to all students, then the program itself is not discriminatory."

He distinguished scholarships from the admissions quotas that were at issue in Bakke, because "the scholarship decision in terms of who gets money and how much is not as important to the individual as the admissions decision."

Likewise, Tatel said, the ruling on special treatment of minority contractors would not automatically invalidate scholarships designated for minorities because "the impact on a white student here is significantly less than the impact on a white contractor in Croson who is denied a contract." In addition, he said, the court has said universities "can constitutionally take race into account to promote diversity and that's what they're doing."