Federal Scholarship Program Geared Toward Low-Income, First Generation and Underrepresented College Students Challenged as Discriminatory

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Federal Scholarship Program Geared Toward Low-Income, First Generation and Underrepresented College Students Challenged as Discriminatory

Dec 14, 2023

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In yet another challenge to higher education DEI efforts, a federal scholarship program administered through the University of Colorado is facing a complaint of unlawful discrimination and civil rights violation before the Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights (“OCR”). The complaint, filed on or around November 27, 2023, alleges that the University’s participation in the Ronald McNair Scholars Program (“McNair Program”) violates the civil rights of White and Asian college students. The McNair Program is a federally funded scholarship program, named after Black astronaut, Ronald McNair, and awards grants to higher education institutions to help increase the number of “disadvantaged” research doctorate students. To be eligible for the McNair Program, students must show that they are: (1) low-income and first-generation students or (2) students from groups underrepresented in graduate education. Underrepresented groups in graduate education are defined as individuals who are members of one or more of the following ethnic and racial groups: Black, Hispanic, American Indian, Alaskan Native, Native Hawaiian, or Native American Pacific Islander. The McNair Program does not directly make race or ethnicity an eligibility requirement. By way of example, a White or Asian student identifying as low-income or first generation, would be eligible for the program.

The OCR complaint was filed by an organization called the Equal Protection Project. The Equal Protection Project has filed a number of other civil rights complaints against colleges and universities which administer scholarships and grants from the McNair Program. Although the Equal Protection Project is not alleging that the McNair Program’s grants are unlawful because it is limited to students of a certain race or ethnicity, it complains that White and Asian Students have an “extra hurdle” they must “jump over” to qualify for the scholarship or grant funds that students in the underrepresented groups do not. According to the Equal Protection Project, since White and Asian students do not qualify as an underrepresented student, they can only be eligible for the McNair Program if they meet the low-income or first-generation college student criteria. Since Black or Hispanic students have an opportunity to qualify for the McNair scholarship as either low-income, first generation or underrepresented group members, the Equal Protection Project alleges the program is discriminatory. The complaint requests that OCR direct the University to stop administering the McNair Program grant and that they provide remedies for students who may have been excluded from the program based on race.

College, university scholarship and grant programs are coming under fire from opponents of DEI if the scholarship or grant is designed to provide opportunities to underrepresented students not similarly provided to represented students. Higher education institutions and their foundations, however, are becoming increasingly mindful of the potential challenges to their scholarship awards, and many have started reviewing and revising their programs to avoid or minimize discrimination challenges. They are revising scholarships and financial grants beyond the traditional DEI methods by relying more on non-traditional criteria such as, socioeconomics, first generation student, issuing grants or scholarships based upon neighborhoods or zip-codes, and relying on a student’s essay as to how they overcame difficult challenges, academic or social, even if the essay includes information about the student’s race or ethnicity. The University of Colorado complaint is important to follow, because many of the non-traditional DEI criteria recommended by practitioners are at issue in the McNair Program. We will continue to monitor and report on complaints filed by the Equal Protection Project against colleges and universities’ implementation and administration of the McNair Program and other similar scholarship programs.