The U.S. Civil Rights Commission has urged President Bush to support college scholarships reserved for minorities and to clarify government policy on such race-specific grants.

The independent commission Thursday sent Bush its recommendations on the controversial issue in a letter that members approved on a 5 to 2 vote with one abstention. Chairman Arthur A. Fletcher, who last month urged Bush to back such minority scholarships, signed the two-page letter on the commission's behalf.

The action was prompted by a Dec. 18 decision by an Education Department official that such grants are in most cases permissible only if funded by earmarked private gifts. Michael L. Williams, assistant secretary for civil rights, announced that policy two weeks after his total ban on race-specific scholarships provoked a firestorm of criticism.

Williams set a four-year period for compliance, but said his office would continue to investigate discrimination complaints that could lead to sanctions against colleges.

The civil rights commission advised Bush that "this area of vital national concern" should not "be relegated to subcabinet-level pronouncements." The panel said the distinction that Williams made between privately earmarked scholarships and college-funded ones is "legally insupportable" and would outlaw most such scholarships.

"We urge you, therefore, to take a strong stand in support of affirmative action in the recruitment of minority students, including the use of minority-targeted scholarships where necessary to achieve either of two important national interests -- remedying the invidious effects of discrimination and attaining the benefits of a diverse student body," the commission wrote.

Voting against the commission's stance were William Allen, a professor from Claremont, Calif., and Carl Anderson, a vice president of the Knights of Columbus. Blandina Ramirez abstained because she works for the American Council on Education, which represents colleges.