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House to vote on bill ending college affirmative action

The House could vote today on a measure to end what has become a mainstay in providing many people access to higher education _ affirmative action.

California Republican Frank Riggs, with strong support from Lakeland Republican Charles Canady, wants to attach a measure to a higher education bill that would tear at racial preferences with tactics analogous to those tested on the state level.

"My amendment to this bill bans any college or university participating in federal higher education programs from discriminating against or providing preferential treatment to any person or groups based on race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin," Riggs said at a news conference.

If included in legislation that authorizes higher education spending, the proposal would forbid any college or university that accepts federal aid _ like the popular Pell Grant _ from applying more lenient admissions standards to minorities.

"We have resurrected a system that separates Americans by race," said Jerry Reynolds, president of the Center for New Black Leadership. "We have a dual system _ one for whites and Asians, another for Hispanics and blacks."

Others, however, say that affirmative action is still needed.

"There is this notion that you are lowering standards and letting in unqualified people, but in fact you are letting in people that create a diverse class and strengthen the class as a whole," said Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Attorney General Janet Reno and Education Secretary Richard Riley will recommend that President Clinton veto the higher education bill if the Riggs Amendment is attached. A vote on the amendment is expected today or Thursday. Riggs seemed unsure if he could muster the 219 votes needed to get it in the overall bill.

Still, the effort creates the "floor on which to build our future efforts," Riggs said.

Canady agreed. The "issue is going to continue to be raised in a number of different ways," Canady said. "We're going to come at it from as many directions as we think we can."

The efforts of Canady _ the leading opponent of preferences in the House _ and his camp have been unsuccessful.

Earlier this month, the House was 25 votes short in eliminating minority and gender preferences in federal highway contracts.

A bill by Canady to end federal assistance to any organization that uses preferences was tabled by the Judiciary Committee last year.

Throughout the country, most public universities still abide by a 1978 Supreme Court decision that allows colleges to use race as one factor among many that are used to choose students. Only California and Texas have removed racial preferences from their admissions rules. Those decisions have led to a substantial reduction in minority students admitted to universities in those states.

What has happened in California and Texas shows that a federal ban would cause a "resegregation of our school systems," said Katheryn Engustian, legislative counsel for the ACLU.

"Not only do we have a drop in minority admissions in those states, but we have a drop in applications. Students perceive that the environment will be hostile to them."

_ Information from Times files was used in this report.

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