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Equality Without Unfairness : Education secretary issues sensible minority-scholarship guidelines

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Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 stipulates: “No person in the United States shall on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” The Civil Rights Act had in view, of course, the massive exclusions and denials that had been suffered by African-Americans.

As part of the same cultural transformation of which the Civil Rights Act was the legal expression, American higher education has been striving for a generation to increase its enrollment of African-Americans and other minorities. One tool has been the scholarship set-aside: money earmarked by a donor or by a college or university for use by members of a given group.

But is it not illogical and inherently objectionable to fight discrimination by way of discrimination? That was the view expressed a year ago by the Department of Education in a ruling that offered no constructive alternative and touched off a furor in civil rights circles and, in fact, in most university aid offices.

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After his appointment as secretary of education, Lamar Alexander took the matter under review seven months ago. Last Wednesday, the results of the review were offered for 90 days’ public comment. At their heart are five principles. Adhere to these principles, the Department of Education tells higher education, and you will not run afoul of Title VI.

“But will we be able to help minority students?” aid officers rightly ask. As we read the rules, the answer is clearly yes. If a black student is judged eligible for aid on the ground of financial need, a college may draw on a race-exclusive scholarship fund (by the way, there aren’t really all that many such funds) to pay the student’s way.

It may also draw on its own funds for a collective goal of its own; namely, to make its student body diverse. Principle 2 reads, in part: “America is unique because it has forged one nation from many people of a remarkable number of different backgrounds. Many colleges seek to create on campus an intellectual environment that reflects that diversity.”

Some will complain that the new principles are complex. But equally complex is the challenge of addressing the effects of past discrimination without succumbing to a new form of discrimination. These principles manage to acknowledge and address the all-too-facile charge of reverse discrimination without stopping the nation’s painfully won momentum toward equal educational opportunity for all.

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