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College asks high court to halt government meddling

By Curtis J. SitomerSpecial sections editor of The Christian Science Monitor / January 28, 1983

Pam, a high school senior, appears to have all she needs for a successful college career: excellent grades, proven leadership qualities, athletic ability. But looming in the background are legal questions that may reduce or even eliminate financial resources she needs to attend college.

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Now that most of her college applications for next fall are filed, Pam is waiting to see which universities will offer her the most attractive scholarship-and-loan packages. Her parents can underwrite some of her college costs. But without outside aid, she just won't be able to meet expenses.

The Supreme Court of the United States has been asked to decide whether the government can refuse to guarantee bank loans for students who attend colleges that won't specify whether they discriminate racially or by sex.

The debate brings up questions that could affect Pam:

* Is a federally guaranteed educational loan to a student a form of federal aid to that student or to the college or university in which she enrolls?

* If a college fails to meet federal regulations in one program (no sex discrimination in athletics, for example), can the government penalize the entire institution and its students?

* Do colleges have a constitutional right (under privacy and freedom-of-association guarantees) to resist government scrutiny of their programs and practices?

So far, the courts have flipflopped over most of these issues. Only in the area of racial discrimination have they been fairly clear. For example, tax-exempt status has been denied to Bob Jones University in South Carolina, which bars interracial dating, and Goldsboro Christian Schools Inc., in North Carolina, which accepts no blacks. These cases are being reviewed by the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, two circuit courts, the Third and the Sixth, have recently sent down opposing opinions regarding the rights of small private colleges that refuse to sign antidiscrimination certifications for federal loan funds.

Overthrowing a district court decision, the Court of Appeals in the ''Third'' ruled that Grove City College, in western Pennsylvania, is subject to government anti-bias rules, since its students receive federal grants and loans. The court said that although the college has not received federal money directly, it benefits from the financial aid given its students.

If this decision stands, Grove City must comply with federal rules or its students will lose thousands of dollars in aid.

On the other hand, in the case of Hillsdale College, in southern Michigan, the Sixth Circuit refused to cut off student aid funds, despite the school's unwillingness to certify nondiscrimination. It ruled that the federal government's regulations are too broad, ''cover[ing] the entire college, and are not limited to the student loan and grant program.''

Grove City and Hillsdale are schools that take pride in refusing any direct federal aid. The former has strong ''Christian'' underpinnings and an educational philosophy that rings of self-sufficiency and autonomy. Similarly, Hillsdale is committed to what it describes as traditional values of freedom, individual dignity, free enterprise, and limited government.

Hillsdale president George C. Roche III says: ''For us, it's basically a matter of consistency. Never since its founding in 1844 has Hillsdale College accepted a penny of aid from any institution of government - local, state, or federal. Never has it submitted to the heavy hand of government control that necessarily accompanies the soft hand of government help.''

Grove City president Charles S. MacKenzie raises the whole question of direct and indirect government control, particularly in terms of a religious school. ''But it's broader than the religious issue,'' he says. ''Academic freedom is at the heart of the whole case.''