IN the age of affirmative action, classmates at Colorado State University often assume Samar Lightfoot, an African-American freshman, is receiving a college scholarship award because he is black. But his scholarship has nothing to do with the color of his skin.
''It comes up in conversation with students sitting across the cafeteria table,'' Mr. Lightfoot says. ''They talk about how all these minorities are here just because they are minorities. But in my own case, I'm here because I worked hard.''
Lightfoot is one of 274 students in CSU's ''First Generation Award Program,'' which provides full-tuition scholarships for students whose parents do not have a four-year degree. Most come from poor backgrounds, and many are the first in their families to enroll in college.
As the Republican-led assault on affirmative action heats up nationwide, there is growing interest -- including by some Clinton administration officials -- in shifting the basis for scholarships, hiring practices, and contract awards from race to class. Proponents assert that ''colorblind'' affirmative action is the wave of the future. Critics say such a shift would erode the recent progress made by race-based programs.
A few colleges have already begun an experiment in class-based affirmative-action scholarships.
Last year, Tennessee Technological University and the University of Colorado in Boulder launched first-generation scholarship programs.
But the CSU program, established in 1984, may be the oldest in the nation. In the past decade, it has awarded $4.7 million to nearly 900 students. Recipients are in-state residents who have been accepted under the regular admissions process. The program was designed to attract students from many backgrounds.
''We were looking for ways to encourage diversity on the campus and support participation in higher education by students who were underrepresented by a variety of characteristics,'' says Paul Thayer, head of CSU's program.
Although race is not a factor in the awards, ''a high proportion of ethnically diverse students are also first-generation and low-income students,'' Mr. Thayer says. Since 1984, minorities have received 84 percent of the grants.
''One would predict, on the basis of income and first-generation status, that this group would perform at a lower level than the rest of the university,'' Thayer says.
''But the opposite has been the case.'' The students have typically exceeded the university-wide grade-point average, he says. And their graduation rate has exceeded the university average in four of the last five years.
Yet Thayer does not view the program as a substitute for race-based awards. ''I think we are going to lose an essential strategy if we lose race-based scholarships,'' he says.
''This is something that stands alongside those programs and addresses issues of diversity along with other concerns. But we also need to provide incentives to students of color who may or may not be first-generation.''
Although he is proud to say that his scholarship is not based on race, Lightfoot does not think race-based scholarships should be eliminated either. ''If there aren't any race-based scholarships, [minority students] may end up at community colleges or not go at all,'' he says.
Even some white recipients of the first-generation award argue against replacing scholarships for minorities. ''If we just drop race-based programs, obviously the people who are going to lose are the minority students,'' says CSU student Joseph Sommers.
YET legal challenges to race-exclusive scholarships may force a rethinking of this subject. In October, a federal appeals court ruled that a University of Maryland scholarship program violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The act prohibits institutions that receive federal funds from race discrimination. The case is being appealed to the US Supreme Court.
The Clinton administration has sided with the University of Maryland in the lower courts. But with the reevaluation of affirmative-action policies now under way, that may change in the current appeal.
This case directly addresses the question of whether race-based scholarships should be replaced by class preferences. The university's Benjamin Banneker scholarships are reserved for high-achieving black students. After being denied an application, Hispanic student Daniel Podberesky sued the school.
Nearly all the African-Americans receiving Banneker scholarships are middle-class or upper-middle-class, says Richard Samp of the Washington Legal Foundation and Mr. Podbereksy's lawyer.
In arguing the case, Mr. Samp suggested class-based scholarships as an alternative to Maryland's current program. ''What we have argued all along is that there are a lot of people of all colors who come from disadvantaged backgrounds,'' Samp says. ''Those are the people who ought to be getting assistance without regard to race.''
Yet Samp is not optimistic that colleges will rush toward class-based scholarships even if the Supreme Court rules in his favor. ''There are very few colleges that are serious about taking underprivileged students,'' he says.
''Those are the students who are the most likely to drop out before graduation. So if you make a commitment to that kind of program, the school's graduation percentages are going to plummet. And colleges are already being heavily criticized for not doing enough to graduate their students.''
But research suggests that may not be the case. Janet Mancini Billson, of the American Sociological Association, has interviewed hundreds of first-generation college students and found that first-generation students had comparable ability and motivation to other students. ''But they were all short on money,'' so they had to work many hours to help pay for college.
Ms. Billson says the ''double burden'' of working 20 to 30 hours a week plus taking a full course load leads to a high dropout rate for low-income students. Scholarships would relieve the financial burden and quickly translate into a higher success rate for these students, Billson argues.
She symphathizes with arguments supporting race-based scholarships. But, ''In the '90s and into the 21st century, we are going to need to be more sophisticated in how we approach scholarship decisions.''