Millions of dollars in scholarships now available for black students in Maryland may be shielded from a new U.S. Department of Education ban on race-based awards because they are part of a court-ordered desegregation plan.
But the 5-year-old state plan is soon to expire, and if such scholarships remain under a ban, universities could be prevented from replacing the state funds with programs of their own.
State education officials said yesterday that they expect it will be at least two years before the federal court's desegregation plan is closed. However, the loss of the scholarship funds could then have a devastating impact on major efforts by many college and university campuses to recruit black students, officials at those campuses said.
Criticizing the ruling by Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Michael L. Williams, Maryland educators said they expected it to be challenged in the courts.
"It represents very bad public policy, and it needs to be challenged," said Donald N. Langenberg, chancellor of the University of Maryland System.
"Financial support in the form of scholarships is a time-tested way of encouraging people to follow [the money] into particular areas," he said.
"For example, the federal government has long provided fellowship aid in the areas of math, science, engineering in which it was deemed to be in the national interest . . .," he said.
The ruling exempted scholarship programs set up to meet court-ordered desegregation plans or those established by private foundations, but Mr. Williams of the Education Department said at a press conference that the law is otherwise clear in barring race-based awards.
Many college presidents in Maryland expressed dismay over the ruling.
William E. Kirwan, president of the University of Maryland at College Park, which views such scholarships as a key strategy to maintain what is now one of the most diverse campuses in the nation, called it a setback nationally to efforts to diversify student populations.
College Park's present programs, he said, would not be affected because they were part of the university's response to the court-ordered desegregation plan. "They are extremely important to the campus, and we have every intention of continuing them," he said.
College Park has about 100 Benjamin Banneker scholars -- black students selected for full scholarships on the basis of academic merit -- on campus in any given year, and 80 black students who receive graduate fellowships. The campus awarded more than $2.3 million in minority scholarships, fellowships and post-doctoral grants in 1991. Since 1979, the annual value of the prestigious Banneker scholarships has grown to $594,351 from $16,000.
William C. Richardson, the president of the Johns Hopkins University, which awards a limited number of scholarships to black students in engineering but need-based aid to students of all races, said the education department was "sending the wrong signal at the wrong time." He said student financial aid is the single most important factor in improving the numbers of underrepresented minorities who attend college. "This is a direct contradiction of that effort," he said.
Officials at the University of Maryland Baltimore County said they did not think its highly successful scholarship program designed to increase the number of black students in math and science would be affected because it is privately funded.
Some officials expressed concern that the ruling threatens future scholarships now funded under the desegregation plan.
"They may not be affected for the time being, but once the grants run out . . . they might not be replaced," said Anna Breland, financial aid director at the University of Baltimore. UB gave 117 scholarships worth $173,000 to black undergraduates and law students last year with desegregation money.
State officials this summer asked the U.S. Department of Education to release it from the court-ordered plan, saying they have largely met its goals. At the same time, they pledged to continue to promote scholarship programs to provide access for minority students.
Jeffrey R. Welsh, public information officer for the Maryland Higher Education Commission, said it would be at least two years before the state is released from the plan. He said Secretary of Higher Education Shaila R. Aery was seeking an opinion from the state attorney general to be sure the scholarships could continue at least through that time.
The desegregation scholarships are awarded to black and white students alike. Bowie State University, a historically black public campus, made more than $291,800 in scholarship awards to white, Hispanic, and other non-black students last year, for example.
Statewide, public campuses awarded more than $2.7 million in race-based scholarships with desegregation funds in 1988-89. They went to 1,034 black students on mostly white campuses and 544 non-black students at historically black campuses.
There are no national figures on how many scholarships are awarded on the basis of race, but Herm Davis, president of the Gaithersburg-based scholarship search service, CASHE, estimated yesterday that race is the sole criterion in as much as 25 percent of the scholarships in his listing of 200,000 scholarships nationwide.
Martha Church, the president of Hood College, whose freshman class this year is close to one-third minority students, said several dozen scholarships to black students to become teachers, complete with first-preference job interviews in the Frederick County school system, might be imperiled.