Lamar Alexander yesterday told a Senate committee that, if confirmed as education secretary, he will discard new federal restrictions on race-based scholarships and "start over" by ordering a broad review of Education Department policy on such scholarships.

Alexander, a former Tennessee governor who is now president of that state's university system, described scholarships reserved for minorities as an important signal that encourages them to enter college. He publicly stated his views on the scholarship issue for the first time during testimony at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, whose members richly praised the nomination.

Alexander expressed regret that Michael L. Williams, assistant secretary for civil rights, had ever challenged the Education Department's long-standing policy of permitting colleges that receive federal funds to award race-based scholarships.

"There's a saying I heard once that it's not a good idea to turn over every rock that you can, and this might have been a rock that it was best not to turn over a few weeks ago," Alexander said in response to a question from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the committee chairman.

Last Dec. 4, Williams sent a letter to organizers of the Fiesta Bowl football game, advising them that plans to fund minority scholarships at two universities would violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964. After an intense controversy, Williams retreated two weeks later at the White House's insistence and ruled that most colleges could offer race-based scholarships if they were funded with privately earmarked donations, but not with the college's own funds. Many college officials described the revised policy as confusing and inconsistent.

Alexander said that in his first few days in office, "I would start over. . . . We'll go back to the policy, whatever it was, that existed on Dec. 3."

Williams's statements, Alexander said, "sent out exactly the wrong signal. Our signal in America to disadvantaged students, especially minorities, is 'we want you in,' not that 'we want you out' {of higher education}. By starting over, I think we send a different signal: 'We want you in,' not 'we want you out.' "

On other subjects, Alexander said he was not involved in drafting President Bush's proposed budget for education and therefore could not answer questions about it. He also promised to explore new approaches to student aid programs, which Congress must reauthorize this session.

The scholarship review, which Alexander said might take five or six months, would ask colleges to supply information on their general financial aid policies, the number of race-based scholarships and the reasons for offering them. The department also would consult with Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and members of the Senate committee, he said.

Pressed by Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.), Alexander declined to specify what policy might come out of the review because "I would then be making the same mistake" that Williams made -- changing policy without a careful review. Later, Alexander told reporters he did not mean to criticize Williams and expects "to be working with him on this."

Alexander said his ultimate scholarship policy would be guided by four principles: providing educational opportunity, encouraging "variety" in college student bodies, avoiding quotas and limiting federal intervention in college financial aid decisions.

He advised college officials not to alter their scholarship practices during the review. "I don't want anybody to slow down their efforts to encourage disadvantaged Americans, especially minorities, to go to college while we develop a policy to make sure we do that in an American way," he said. "I want them to go ahead."

His statements won praise from committee leaders. Kennedy called it "a very thoughtful response." Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the ranking Republican on the committee, said: "How could we ask for a better answer than that?"

David Merkowitz, a spokesman for the American Council on Education, said that the umbrella organization of higher education groups had sought a return to pre-existing scholarship policy as well as a department review.

"Who could ask for anything more?" Merkowitz said, paraphrasing Hatch's comment.

But Richard F. Rosser, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, said unless the review is completed quickly, "we will continue to have all kinds of uncertainty out there."

Rosser said his group's survey of more than 300 private colleges showed four out of five have race-based scholarships, most financed with college funds. Such grants average $6,000 for undergraduates and $7,200 for graduate students, he said.

No definitive data on race-based scholarships exists for all colleges. A College Board survey last year indicated about a third of accredited colleges, 1,070, award some scholarships at least partly on the basis of race.

In other action, the committee endorsed the nomination of former representative Lynn Martin (R-Ill.) to be labor secretary on a 17 to 0 vote. The laudatory comments from committee members about Alexander's education record as a governor and university president suggested that he also will win confirmation easily. At one point, Simon called him "near secretary."