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State Minority Scholarship Program Faces Legal Challenge For Race Discrimination

Wisconsin Institute For Law And Liberty Says Grant Program Is Unconstitutional, Limited To Certain Students Of Color

students on campus
Bebeto Matthews/AP Photo

A state program that distributes grants to minority college students is under fire from a conservative law firm. The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, or WILL, is alleging the Higher Educational Aids Board’s Minority Undergraduate Retention Grant Program is unconstitutional because it excludes white students and minority groups not specified in statute.

According to the lawsuit filed in Jefferson County Circuit Court, WILL is seeking that the grant program be declared unconstitutional because it uses taxpayer funds “to discriminate against college students based on race, national origin, and alienage.”

The Minority Undergraduate Retention Grant Program states that “African American; American Indian; Hispanic; or Southeast Asian from Laos, Cambodia, or Vietnam admitted to the U.S. after December 31, 1975” qualify for grants of up to $2,500 per year while enrolled in college.

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The program operates under a state statute outlining the specific racial criteria, which was passed as part of the 1985-1987 state budget and provides grants to students attending private colleges in Wisconsin and state technical colleges.

WILL attorney Dan Lennington told WPR the law firm is asking the judge to declare the grant program unconstitutional because “the overarching principle is that the government can’t discriminate against people based on race. Full stop.”

“This particular program is even more flawed, though, because as you may know, there are over 30 countries in Asia,” said Lennington. “This scholarship only allows people from three countries.”

Lennington said if the goal is to help students, state aid should be appropriated based on financial need instead.

The University of Wisconsin System has a similar program for its students called the Ben R. Lawton Minority Undergraduate Retention Grant, which lists the same eligibility criteria. Lennington said WILL is looking at that program as well.

“If we are successful, obviously it does raise questions about the UW scholarship, which we believe is appropriated $1.5 million a year and has been since 1986,” said Lennington.

In a video posted to WILL’s website, Madison couple Richard Friehoefer and KonKanok Rabiebna discuss how their son was unable to get state aid through the Higher Educational Aids Board’s minority grant program. Friehoefer said the program “should be equal,” especially if it’s a government program.

“If it’s a private entity, do what you want with your money,” said Friehoefer. “But it’s our tax money that’s going for this. You’re basically pitting one group against another.”

A grant administrator with the Higher Educational Aids Board didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.

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