After three years of investigation, the federal government has told the state Department of Public Instruction that it must restructure the requirements of a minority-targeted scholarship program so it is not exclusively based on race and ethnicity.
The DPI will instead adopt new eligibility standards—the ones used for free and reduced lunch programs—for the Minority Precollege Scholarship Program. It also will rename it the DPI Precollege Scholarship Program.
The agreement comes more than a year after pivotal U.S. Supreme Court decisions on the use of race and ethnicity in college admissions.
The Wisconsin scholarship program, which began in the mid-1980s, has provided money to minority students wishing to attend precollege programs at colleges and universities throughout the state. More than 30 state higher education institutions, public and private, have offered precollege programs that accept the scholarships.
Precollege programs range from one-day campus visits to longer summer camps and often target minority students. About 4,000 students in grades six through 12 benefit from the scholarships each year.
The state allocated $2.2 million to the program for the 2003-’05 biennium, said Kevin Ingram, educational administrative director for Wisconsin Education Opportunity Programs, which oversees the scholarships.
The scholarship program’s use of certain races and ethnicities as eligibility requirements led to a complaint filed in fall 2001 with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.
The investigation of the complaint stalled while federal and state officials waited for the U.S. Supreme Court to decide upon two affirmative action cases involving the University of Michigan. Those cases were decided in June 2003.
The high court’s rulings essentially upheld the use of race and ethnicity as considerations in college admissions, but disallowed the use of quotas in establishing classes. Some legal experts have interpreted the rulings as also preventing the use of race and ethnicity in a way that would exclude certain groups from eligibility.
The new eligibility requirements for the Wisconsin scholarship program focus instead on socioeconomic status of students and could reach many in the minority groups already targeted. The new standards, agreed upon last month, will take effect July 1.
“We don’t know what effect this is really going to have,” Ingram said. “We’ll have an opportunity to re-evaluate it in four years.”