Wary of political pressure and mounting legal challenges, colleges and universities across the country are granting all students access to financial aid programs originally intended for minorities.
The U.S. Department of Justice threatened to sue Southern Illinois University last November over claims that three of the school’s graduate fellowships aimed toward women and minorities violated the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. In February, the school agreed to allow non-minorities and men to apply for the fellowships.
In January, the State University of New York made all students eligible for millions of dollars in aid provided by two scholarship programs that were previously exclusive to minorities.
The changes are part of a nationwide movement to review race-conscious programs in higher education. The renewed focus was largely sparked by two 2003 Supreme Court cases involving the use of race as an admissions criterion at the University of Michigan.
Conservative groups lobbying for the changes view the schools’ actions as a stepping stone to eliminating race as a factor in university programs.
“We don’t think that any student should be denied participation in any educational program because of race or ethnicity,” said Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, which has been urging institutions to open their race-conscious awards to all students.
Clegg, a former deputy assistant attorney general in the Reagan and Bush administrations, said his organization has sent challenges to more than 200 colleges and universities since 2003, threatening to file complaints with the federal government if changes were not made.
Jim Bradshaw, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, said in an e-mail statement that the department’s Office for Civil Rights is currently investigating all complaints involving race-based programs.
“OCR’s primary obligation is to enforce the law, including the requirement that all institutions that use race or national origin do so in a way that is narrowly tailored to meet a compelling interest and consistent with Supreme Court precedent,” Bradshaw said. “We are investigating the facts fairly under the law, as we do with all of our civil rights complaints.”
Anurima Bhargava, assistant counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., said that minority scholarships are a critically important tool to ensure opportunities for minority students.
“Everyone is talking about the disparities between … between blacks and whites and yet the same people who are talking about these gaps are the ones trying to take tools off the table,” she said.
According to the College Board’s policy manual on diversity-related programs, colleges have struggled for decades to achieve educational diversity in a manner that meets federal legal requirements. As a result, race and ethnicity-conscious financial aid and scholarship programs may be more widespread among institutions.
However, Director of Admissions Timm Rinehart said Temple is not one of these institutions.
Rinehart said “not one penny” of the $40 million Temple allocates for financial aid each year is set aside specifically for minorities and women.
“Temple never really had to have conscious affirmative action programs to attract minority students because we’ve always had this incredible ethnic diversity … and so we never felt that we needed to form scholarship programs specifically for minority students,” Rinehart said.
Sandra Foehl, director of affirmative action compliance and investigation in the Office of Multicultural Affairs, said that a university-wide audit was conducted in 1997, ensuring that scholarship programs were not in conflict with the university’s non-discrimination policy.
Rinehart said that in recent years, the yield for scholarships awarded to black and Latino students was only half the amount awarded to white students.
“We said ‘Gee, we need to make sure that the scholarship offers to African American and Latino students are competitive,” Rinehart said. “Now did we set aside an extra pool of money? No. Did we take money away from white students? No. This is all well within federal legislation.”
Foehl said that she was not aware of any student grievances regarding Temple’s diversity-related programs. “If there were formal complaints, this office would certainly know about them,” she said.
Some students, such as junior Amy M. Eusebio, president of the Asociacion de Estudiantes Latinos, believe Temple should implement special programs for minorities. “We need to look at the facts for what they are,” Eusebio, a social work major, said. “Minority students do have economic hardships and should have access to minority scholarships. I don’t see that as reverse discrimination.”
Others, like sophomore film major Justin Nolan, are happy with Temple’s current policy to offer scholarships to students without respect to race. “[Minority scholarships] wouldn’t be a good thing just because it’s excluding people and isolating minorities even more,” Nolan said.
Venuri Siriwardane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.