The U.S. Department of Education has decided to begin prohibiting colleges and universities that receive federal funds from offering scholarships designated for minority students.
Michael L. Williams, the Education Department's assistant secretary for civil rights, said yesterday that "race-exclusive" scholarships were discriminatory and therefore illegal.
College administrators and scholarship fund directors reacted with alarm, saying that the decision could reverse decades of efforts to increase the enrollment of members of racial and ethnic minorities who have been historically underrepresented in colleges.
"We were shocked by this decision," said Richard F. Rosser, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, which represents 815 institutions.
"We have been making enormous efforts to increase the numbers of minority students in our colleges and universities, and this has necessarily required a great deal of financial aid."
Mr. Rosser could not say how many institutions or students might be affected by the new enforcement policy. But the practice of setting aside money to attract qualified minority students and make college more affordable for them has been widespread for at least 20 years.
Scholarships based strictly on financial need, which often benefit minority students, would not be affected. Nor would scholarships awarded to individual students by private foundations and groups, or groups such as the United Negro College Fund, which raises money for historically black colleges but does not stipulate that the revenue be used for minority students only.
Word of Mr. Williams' policy reached college administrators and scholarship fund directors after the department sent a letter on Dec. 4 to organizers of the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Ariz.
The organizers, under fire for the state of Arizona's policy against a holidy honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., had proposed to set up a scholarship fund in Dr. King's memory for the two universities whose teams play in the annual football game.
The department's letter cautioned that a scholarship earmarked for minority students would be illegal.
Mr. Williams said that his position should not be seen as an assault on minority scholarships or an attempt to curb the numbers of black and Hispanic college students. Rather, he said, he wanted his office to have a consistent approach to "race-exclusive" financial aid.
He said the issue was one of seven areas on which the Office of Civil Rights would concentrate as part of its national enforcement strategy.
A memorandum outlining that strategy was circulated in the department yesterday and was to be described at a news conference in Washington today.