COLLEGE PARK -- Twenty-five Benjamin Banneker scholars interviewed recently at the University of Maryland said they would not have studied there if they had not been offered the merit-based scholarship for black students.
Many said their decision came down to finances. They said they couldn't pass up a four-year scholarship that paid full tuition, room and board and a book stipend.
"I was originally heading to Duke University," said Earl Edwards, 18, a freshman from Columbia. "I have a twin sister coming here. Financially, I thought it best to take the money."
The scholars also said they were concerned about the potential for discrimination at a school where only 12 percent of the student population is black.
"I'd heard a lot of rumors of bad race relations at the University of Maryland," said Kay Arah, 17, a freshman engineering major and a Banneker scholarship recipient. "It seemed like they were trying to improve that with the Banneker program."
Ms. Arah, whose family lives in Columbia, said had she not received the scholarship, she would have gone to a historically black college where she felt she would have a better support system.
The students' comments bolstered statements from campus officials, who said they feared that if the scholarship is lost, the university will lose a valuable tool for recruiting, supporting and retaining top black students.
On Oct. 27, a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down as discriminatory the university's merit-based scholarship, which is offered only to blacks.
William E. Kirwan, president of the College Park campus, said last week the decision would be appealed to a full panel of judges at the appeals court. He said the university would continue recruiting students through the program until the courts make a final decision.
The Black Student Union and other campus groups marched by candlelight to the main administration building last night to present a letter of support to Dr. Kirwan for the university's efforts to continue the program.
The four-year scholarship offers more than financial help, said Ms. Arah, whose older sister is also a Banneker scholar. She said the 139 scholarship recipients now studying at the university meet formally once a month, but network informally all the time for help in tough classes or advice about which professors are best.
"I know a lot of Bannekers," Ms. Arah said. "On my floor there are four or five. I feel more comfortable asking them for help. I know they are serious students."
Tamika Nelson, 18, a freshman computer science major from New York, said she had been paired with the dean of computer science to act as her mentor through the Banneker program.
"I see her often. She helps me with time management, advice and all of that," Ms. Nelson said.
Aspects of the program praised by students -- networking with other scholars, scholars acting as role models for other black students, and students spreading the word to the black pTC community that the university supports them -- were part of the university's plan in creating the state-funded program in 1978, said university spokesman Roland King.
The program was created after the Federal Office of Civil Rights ordered campus officials to increase the proportion of black students.
The appeals court, in its decision, wrote that the Supreme Court "has expressly rejected the role-model theory as a basis for implementing a race-conscious remedy, as we do."
The court also criticized the program for recruiting talented black students from out of state, saying the program offers scholarships to all blacks at the expense of non-black Maryland students.
Undergraduate enrollment of black students at the College Park campus is higher than the national average of 8 percent, university officials said. The university ranked second among colleges that are not historically black in awarding bachelor's degrees to black students in 1991, according to a survey by the journal Black Issues in Higher Education.