January 23, 2005

The coming fight over race-based student grants.

This looks like the beginning of a major battle:
The University of Wisconsin System's program to provide scholarships for minority students is drawing criticism from a national group opposed to racial preferences in higher education, but System officials are defending the program as legal and still necessary.

Created by the state Legislature in 1986, the program is coming under attack after a 2003 Supreme Court decision upheld affirmative action in college admissions but barred the use of race as the sole deciding factor. The ruling opened the door to increased challenges of all race- conscious university policies, critics say, including the System's Lawton Minority Undergraduate Retention Grant.

"We're looking into this Lawton program," said Roger Clegg, general counsel for the Virginia-based Center for Equal Opportunity, which has contacted more than 100 universities about race-exclusive programs in the past several months and filed complaints about some with the federal government's Office for Civil Rights and Justice Department.

"It seems to me that we should treat everyone equally," Hansen said. "It's simple fairness. You can do all the pirouettes you want to about it, but that's what it comes down to."

But university officials say targeted financial aid for minorities in college is legal and proper. Government rules have been more permissive about the use of race in financial aid for minority students already admitted, they said, and such programs are more necessary now than ever, after recent changes to the federal Pell grant program that will make fewer poor families of any race eligible for that assistance.

"(The Lawton grants) give some incentive for people to stay in school," said Stephanie Hilton, president of United Council of UW Students. "Everything we can do to increase retention is key. That program is not huge, but we're getting a good bang for the buck."...

Last year at UW-Madison, 292 minority students received Lawton grants totaling $736,141, while the tally for the program Systemwide was 2,715 recipients and $3.8 million. Individual grants are available to sophomores, juniors and seniors from Wisconsin and Minnesota who maintain a 2.0 grade point average and demonstrate financial need according to a federal formula....

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