WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration has filed a legal )) brief supporting a race-based scholarship program at the University of Maryland, a departure from the Reagan and Bush administrations' caution about such aid.
The case was brought in 1990 by a student who was told he could not apply for a full, four-year scholarship under the university's Banneker Program because he is not black.
The student, Daniel Podberesky, who is Hispanic, argued that he qualified in every way but color and that the restrictive policy was unconstitutional.
A federal District Court dismissed Mr. Podberesky's case in 1991, saying the program was intended to rectify past discrimination at the University of Maryland's main campus at College Park.
But in 1992 an appeals court ordered a new hearing, saying the university had not proved the continuing effects of past racism.
The rehearing was Friday. Judge J. Frederick Motz of federal District Court in Baltimore reserved decision until sometime before the end of the year.
"As far as I know," said Mr. Podberesky's lawyer, Richard Samp, "this is the only active case that raises the issue of the constitutionality of minority scholarships. There's no question the government decided to get involved as early as possible. First, to say they've been involved, and, second, to have an impact on the policy."
The administration's entry into the case helps clarify the government's position after years of uncertainty during the Reagan and Bush administrations.
In December 1990, in an effort to clear up more than a decade of confusion, Michael Williams, the head of the Education Department's civil rights office, announced that the Bush administration would prohibit race-based scholarships at colleges and universities that receive federal money. Civil rights and academic leaders immediately denounced the policy, which Williams had not cleared with the White House.
The Bush administration backed away from Mr. Williams's stance, saying race could be one factor, but not the determining one, in granting the scholarships.
The Clinton administration argues in its brief that race can be the determining factor.
"This sends a message to the courts," said Evelyn Cannon, Maryland's assistant attorney general, who is representing the university.
dTC "There's no guarantee that because the executive branch signs on that the courts will agree, but it's important to those who care what position the federal government takes on scholarships."
In response to the Bush administration's moves, some institutions modified their admissions policies and scholarship programs, but it is difficult to say how many eliminated race-based scholarships.
A 1991 survey of 105 colleges and universities by the American Council on Education found that less than 2 percent of undergraduate minority students received grants awarded strictly on the basis of race.
"Over the course of this whole issue," said David Merkowitz, a spokesman for the council, "we've been urging institutions not to make any changes in scholarships since there was no final disposition of the policy."
The administration seems to be removing any doubt that it will let institutions use race-based grants to lure minorities.
In March, Education Secretary Richard W. Riley sent a memorandum to the nation's college and university presidents assuring them that "race-based scholarships can be a valuable tool for providing equal opportunity and for enhancing a diverse educational environment." The department joined the Podberesky case in July.
Mr. Podberesky, whose mother is from Costa Rica, applied for a Banneker scholarship in 1990. The grants are not dependent on financial need, and Mr. Podberesky expected to qualify because his high school grade-point average was 4.0 and his Scholastic Assessment Test score was more than 1300. But university officials denied his application, saying the Banneker program was established to attract black students with equally impressive credentials.
The university created the program in 1978, using state and tuition money and requiring a 3.0 grade-point average in high school and an SAT score of 900 to qualify. Maryland spent $43 million on student financial aid in the year Mr. Podberesky applied for a scholarship; of that, $488,000 went to Banneker grants, 46 of which were awarded.
In a court hallway Friday, Sam Podberesky recalled his son's anger at being denied a grant. "I argue that Danny deserved that scholarship," said Sam Podberesky, a government lawyer who does not let his son speak publicly about the case. "Fifteen or so of the Banneker recipients had lower grade-point averages than Danny."