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Court bars race-based scholarship programs

The University of Maryland will go the U.S. Supreme Court to appeal a ruling that would effectively eliminate a scholarship program for black students.

The decision found that a scholarship program that awards aid to black students in order to promote diversity and remedy past discrimination was unconstitutional. Why?

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found an unfair preference for one racial group.

"This is very precedent-setting," said Richard Samp of the conservative Washington Legal Foundation. "The courts are beginning to say what we need to get back to is a colorblind society."

The Justice Department said it was studying the decision.

James Appleberry, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, agreed with Samp that the decision has profound implications. However, he condemned the ruling, saying fewer blacks will succeed without such scholarship programs.

"I think it is extremely negative because this will discourage participation on the part of minorities, not only blacks," Appleberry said. "It sends absolutely the wrong message."

But other civil-rights lawyers said the decision would have a limited impact for two reasons:

The appeals court's decision is binding only in Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia.

The scholarship program in dispute was available only to black students.

Only a small fraction _ an estimated 3 percent _ of the $30-billion in scholarship and loan programs nationally have a racial component.

The case was filed in 1990 by Daniel J. Podberesky, a Hispanic student who was denied a scholarship. The case challenged the Benjamin Banneker scholarship program, named after the 19th century black scientist and inventor.

The program awards about $800,000 a year to 80 or more academically gifted black students. The four-year scholarships cover tuition, books and room and board. These scholarships amount to 1 percent of the total financial aid in the university's budget.

Podberesky didn't qualify even though his grades and test scores were better than all but two applicants. Podberesky, who graduated last year, is seeking reimbursement of $35,000 in education expenses. He is currently enrolled at the University of Maryland School of Medicine on an Air Force scholarship.

Last November, a federal court in Baltimore found the program constitutional because the school had a poor reputation among the state's black residents and because blacks were underrepresented among the student population. It also said the program was necessary because black students have low graduation rates and the atmosphere on campus is perceived to be hostile to them.

The seminal Supreme Court case on affirmative action, Regents of the University of California vs. Bakke in 1978, said that universities had a compelling interest in educational diversity that would justify race preferences in admissions.

In reversing that ruling, the three-judge appeals court brushed aside the justification for the scholarships and said that the University of Maryland had failed to show that the program was "narrowly tailored to serve its stated objectives" and that there might be other, less onerous programs to encourage qualified black students to apply to the school.

The suit is another variation in the line of challenges to affirmative action in higher education that the courts have grappled with for more than 20 years.

The opinion in Podberesky v. Kirwan was written by Judge H. Emory Widener Jr., an appointee of President Richard M. Nixon, and was joined by two other Republican-appointed judges: William W. Wilkins Jr. and Clyde H. Hamilton.

Podberesky said he was pleased with the decision.

"It continues to be my firm belief that merit scholarships should be awarded solely on merit," he said, "and any effort to limit awards based on one's race violates the U.S. Constitution."