The Education Department's Attempt to Reinvent America

THE United States Education Department has indeed turned around on its minority scholarships restriction - about 359 degrees by my calculations. Despite the furor the initial edict aroused, little has changed by Assistant Secretary Michael Williams's recent ``reversal.'' Poor minorities are back on course to nowhere. In his revised ruling of Dec. 18, Mr. Williams declared that colleges and universities may not use money from their own operating budgets to award scholarships to needy minorities. Apparently, only new ``private'' funds may be so applied. What are institutions, like my own, that provide such scholarships to do?

Earlham College currently enrolls 15 black and Hispanic students under our special incentive aid program. The Education Department presents us with a choice: Either we must stop our efforts to recruit deserving minority students or we must forfeit the college's eligibility for federal funds. In the face of this harsh choice we hope the department will see fit to do the right thing. If not, we shall.

The right thing in this case is to permit colleges to use non-federal operating funds for need-based minority scholarships.

The department's ban on minority scholarships amounts to one of the great feats of revisionism of our time. Someone in the department had re-read a provision of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and discovered that the law says discrimination is not only illegal, it no longer exists. The effect of the department's decree, it seems to me, supposes nothing less than a reinvention of America.

Laws speak more than literal words, they speak intentions. Unarguably, it was Congress' intention in 1964 to recognize and redress historical wrongs. It meant to level the playing field for minorities in housing, the workplace, and education. But even in those heady and hopeful days of the civil-rights movement, Congress realized that racial inequities were endemic. Few Americans were so foolish as to believe the law would instantly produce a society of equal opportunity for all. That would take time, likely generations.

Yet, in invoking its embargo on minority college scholarships, the department announces that the cruel past has been vanquished, that America has suddenly been re-created as a color blind society. We have, miraculously, recovered our innocence. With African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans now enjoying the same full economic and social benefits of whites, we should restrict remedial actions to overcome the effects of racism, lest we commit the injustice of reverse discrimination. Have I missed something new on the American vista? My own eyes tell me that I am not color blind, and I don't know anyone who is.

By attempting to stop colleges from awarding scholarships to financially needy students because they are black or Hispanic, the Education Department failed to place the issue of fairness in the wider ethical context of minority opportunities. Students who are not members of the dominant culture are badly underserved by public elementary and secondary education. As a consequence, they are often outcast from the American communal dream. A disproportionate number of black and Hispanic families are poor. Scholarships for this group are an important way to provide hope and opportunity, to overcome the double burden of poverty and discrimination.

In this context it is no surprise that black enrollment in college has declined over the past 13 years. Even the Education Department has worried conspicuously over this deterioration, encouraging (sometimes prodding), colleges to do the right thing. Sharing that alarm, many schools created special incentive programs to encourage more blacks into higher education. Primarily, these programs attempt to make higher education more affordable to bright and motivated students whose families simply cannot contribute their share.

The price to attend the private liberal arts college where I am president exceeds $16,000 per year, not remarkably high for such institutions. Over the past several years, we watched the proportion of black students steadily decline to below 5 percent. We discovered in many cases that while a black applicant might qualify for admission, his or her family could not qualify for the bank loans to pay the student's portion, or were too afraid of such loans to try.

To reverse this disturbing trend we initiated a program whereby qualified blacks and Hispanics who were provably poor could enroll without their families having to seek loans. Today we have 15 students enrolled at Earlham College under this special program. These students receive a financially preferential package but there is no double standard for admission, and there are no quotas. No opportunity is taken away from a white applicant. Thus Williams's attempt to identify minority scholarships with the Bakke case misleads.

If the Department has meant to guide us into some ideal future, it has set the wrong course. We are instead moving toward an ignoble past.

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