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College ends race-based scholarship programs at behest of Education Department – Northern Virginia Community College

A Virginia community college will end five small
ace-based scholarship programs following a complaint filed with the
U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights.

The case involving Northern Virginia Community College in suburban
Washington, D.C., is unusual because the scholarship funds came from
private donors, not the college’s own dollars. However, the institution
did administer these programs, a practice that officials with the
Office for Civil Rights found unacceptable given the current legal

Despite support for the scholarships among faculty and staff, the
federal agency’s decision was not a surprise given the string of recent
setbacks for affirmative action, said Dr. Richard Ernst, the college

“This is a national trend,” he said, “and we’re now part of it.”

Northern Virginia’s case also is another extension of a 1994 Fourth
U.S. Circuit Court of Ap- peals ruling against the University of
Maryland and its Benjamin Banneker scholarship program. That
scholarship funded with public money, not private .dollars as in the
Virginia case – came under attack in the court case of Podboresky v.

One expert says the source of funding is less important than who
bears responsibility for running the program and selecting scholarship
recipients. Northern Virginia Community College administered all of
these scholarship programs, making decisions about which students
received funds.

The key issue is “not who financed the scholarship, but who
administered it,” said Michael Olivas, a law professor at the
University of Houston.

However, the Office for Civil Rights decision should have few
implications nationwide, according to Olivas and other officials. The
government simply followed guidelines from the Maryland case that apply
only in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers the
mid-Atlantic states.

“In that region, financial aid has to be administered as
race-neutral, but admissions does not,” Olivas said. Outside the
region, “the sky’s not falling” because of the decision, he added.

The decision also is not expected to lead to new reviews of
scholarship policies by the Education Department’s Office for Civil
Rights, said spokesman Rodger Murphey. Under the agreement, race-based
scholarships may continue as long as private donors administer the
programs with no assistance from the postsecondary institution.

The programs affected by this ruling provided only a small amount of scholarship aid, Northern Virginia officials said.

The complaint focused primarily on the Leslie V. Forte Scholarship,
named for the first African American English professor at the college.
Forte died of cancer in 1982 at age 34. The program offered $500 in aid
to five students a year at the college, which enrolls more than 60,000
on several campuses.

However, discussions between federal and college officials expanded
to include other programs, including a scholarship funded by a
minority-owned business and one funded by Alpha Phi Alpha, a Black
fraternity, Ernst said. The scholarship program from the minority
business served about five students a year, while the fraternity
program funded fewer than five scholarships annually.

Two other Northern Virginia-administered programs also fell under
the criteria of race-based scholarship programs, bringing the total of
affected programs to five.

The Forte Scholarship will continue, but the college will transfer
funds to a community foundation that will administer the program, Ernst
said. The college will return money to sponsors of the minority
business and fraternity programs, and turn the other two scholarships
into race-neutral financial aid.

Ernst said he believes one reason Northern Virginia’s programs came
under scrutiny is that the institution already serves a sizable
minority population. Students of color represent 39 percent of Northern
Virginia’s students, while minority groups make up 25 percent of the
population in the college’s service area.

“It was clear from several discussions with [federal officials] that
we had far more minority students at the community college than in the
community we served,” Ernst said.

But differences between enrollment and population should not serve
as overriding factors in these decisions, according to Olivas, who is
considered an expert on affirmative action.

“If colleges are providing race-based scholarships, they’re doing it
for the underrepresentation of minorities in undergraduate education
nationally,” he said.

Such statistical differences may exist in enrollment, but not in
other vital areas such as retention or degree completion areas where
minorities often are underrepresented compared to their population,
according to Olivas, author of the book The Law and Higher Education.

Northern Virginia administrators sought help from Virginia’s
attorney general in mediating this dispute, which began last year with
a complaint from a student, Christopher Thompson, who claimed he was
excluded illegally despite the circuit court’s decision in the
University of Maryland case.

Nationwide, college students receive about $4 billion to $5 billion
of private scholarship money, according to The College Board. Federal
and state governments provide more than $40 billion in aid annually,
the organization says.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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