State colleges maintaining a racial mix After court rulings, Md. universities find ways to stay diverse

Aid no longer race-based

Critic of scholarships warns new methods might still be illegal

August 09, 1998|By Timothy B. Wheeler and Mike Bowler | Timothy B. Wheeler and Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

When Matt Hyman begins his freshman year at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County this month, he will do so on a scholarship originally given only to black students.

The soft-spoken 17-year-old from Pikesville is one of seven white freshmen among the 53 students in UMBC's latest crop of Meyerhoff Scholars, a four-year grant program created a decade ago to redress a nationwide shortage of black scientists and engineers.

Maryland's colleges and universities were forced three years ago by the courts to stop awarding scholarships on the basis of race.

As a result, admissions officers at Maryland's public colleges and universities say they have a harder time attracting bright minority students.

However, the schools have managed to maintain -- and, in a few cases, increase -- the racial and ethnic variety of their students, largely through admissions practices that consider race and many other factors.

Now those practices also might be in jeopardy: Robert Farmer, a white Baltimore man, has sued the University of Maryland, claiming he was rejected by the medical school in favor of less-qualified blacks.

"A black or Hispanic with Rob's test scores would have had a red carpet and brass band welcoming him as he walked up the steps [to the school]," said Farmer's lawyer, John Montgomery of Arlington, Va. "They slammed him. They didn't even give him an interview."

The medical school case comes three years after a Latino freshman at the University of Maryland, College Park won his lawsuit contending he was illegally discriminated against by being barred from receiving a Benjamin Banneker Scholarship, a four-year, all-expenses grant awarded only to top black students.

The Supreme Court settled the issue in 1995 by letting stand an appeals court finding that such race-based grants were illegal. At UMBC and other state schools, that has meant opening up or eliminating financial aid programs reserved for blacks and other minorities.

While black students at College Park lament the loss of the prestigious Banneker scholarship, they say the university has made up for it in other ways.

"It seems like losing the court battle was actually a good thing," said Heather Austin, a 1997 College Park graduate who was one of the last Banneker Scholars. "Instead of just letting it fizzle out, they started creating other opportunities for minorities to still attend."

Expanded efforts

Admissions recruiters have expanded their efforts to reach minorities. They visit inner-city high schools and middle schools, and colleges arrange for groups of black students to visit their campuses. Some schools, such as College Park and Frostburg State University, also have gone to great lengths to make their campuses more inviting, setting up minority student centers and revising their curricula to instill diversity.

"Diversity is a priority," said Linda M. Clement, director of undergraduate admissions at College Park.

But conservatives, who have mounted legal and legislative challenges to affirmative action on campuses in a dozen other states, are skeptical. "That's the new mantra: 'diversity,' " said Paul D. Kamenar, executive legal director of the Washington Legal Foundation. Kamenar's group represented Daniel Podboresky, whose 1990 lawsuit barred the use of race-based scholarships on Maryland campuses.

"If that is simply code for the color of somebody's skin," Kamenar warned, "then the University of Maryland better watch out, because they may be setting themselves up for another expensive lawsuit for engaging in reverse discrimination."

Impact on enrollment

After losing its four-year court battle to retain the Banneker scholarship for blacks, the University of Maryland merged it with the Francis Scott Key Scholarship, another merit-only grant open to all. The number of black students getting Banneker-Key money has declined by a third since the programs were combined.

But College Park has nevertheless boosted its African-American enrollment, from 12.3 percent of all undergraduates in 1994 to 14.4 percent last year. College Park is recognized as one of the nation's most diverse flagship university campuses. It and UMBC also rank among the top campuses awarding science and engineering degrees to blacks.

College Park's continued gain in minority enrollment contrasts with dramatic declines at flagship universities in Texas and California after a court decision and a referendum, respectively, that barred consideration of race in college and professional school admissions.

The difference for Maryland, experts say, stems largely from the fact that the courts have outlawed affirmative action only in financial aid, not admissions criteria.

It also helps that state education officials have responded to the legal setback over scholarships by increasing other efforts to promote campus diversity.

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