Facing threats of litigation and pressure from Washington, colleges and universities nationwide are opening to white students hundreds of thousands of dollars in fellowships, scholarships and other programs previously created for minorities.
Southern Illinois University reached a consent decree last month with the Justice Department to allow nonminorities and men access to graduate fellowships originally created for minorities and women.
In January, the State University of New York made white students eligible for $6.8 million of aid in two scholarship programs also previously available just for minorities. Pepperdine University is negotiating with the Education Department over its use of race as a criterion in its programs.
"They're all trying to minimize their legal exposure," Susan Sturm, a law professor at Columbia University said about colleges and universities. "The question is how are they doing that, and are they doing that in a way that's going to shut down any effort or any successful effort to diversify the student body?"
The institutions are reacting to two 2003 Supreme Court cases on using race in admissions at the University of Michigan Although the cases did not ban using race in admissions to higher education, they did leave the state of the law unclear, and with the changing composition of the court, some university and college officials fear legal challenges.
The affected areas include programs for high schools and graduate fellowships.
It is far too early to determine the effects of the changes on the presence of minorities in higher education and how far the pool of money for scholarships and similar programs will stretch.
Firm data on how many institutions have modified their policies is elusive because colleges and institutions are not eager to trumpet the changes. At least a handful are seeking to put more money into the programs as they expand the possible pool of applicants.
Some white students are qualifying for the aid. Last year, in response to a legal threat from the Education Department, Washington University in St. Louis modified the standards for an undergraduate scholarship that had been open just to minorities and was named for the first African-American dean at the university. This year, the first since the change, 12 of the 42 first-year recipients are white.
Officials at conservative groups that are pushing for the changes see the shift as a sign of success in eliminating race as a factor in decision making in higher education.
"Our concern is that the law be followed and that nobody be denied participation in a program on account of skin color or what country their ancestors came from," said Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, which has been pressing institutions on the issue.
"We're not looking at achieving a particular racial outcome," Mr. Clegg added. "And it's unfortunate that some organizations seem to view the success or failure of the program based simply on what percentage of students of this color or that color can participate."
Advocates of focused scholarships programs like Theodore M. Shaw, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., challenge the notion that programs for minority students hurt whites. "How is it that they conclude that the great evil in this country is discrimination against white people?" Mr. Shaw asked. "Can I put that question any more pointedly? I struggle to find the words to do it because it's so stunning."
Mr. Shaw said protecting scholarships and other programs for minorities was "at the top of our agenda."
Travis Reindl, director of state policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said hundreds, if not thousands, of scholarship and fellowship programs historically used race as a criterion. Mr. Reindl estimated that as many as half of the four-year colleges in the United States had reviewed or modified such programs.
Neither the Justice Department nor Education Department, nor organizations on all sides of the discussions over affirmative action, have gathered statistics tracking the trend. In January, The Chronicle of Higher Education named more than 12 institutions that had made the changes.
Mr. Clegg said that since 2003 his center had sent 200 challenges to colleges and universities over race-based scholarships and other programs, warning of legal action if changes were not made. He said more than 150 institutions had broadened their programs in response.
The two Supreme Court affirmative action decisions that are worrying the institutions involved the University of Michigan. In Grutter v. Bollinger, the court upheld the use of race in admissions decisions at the law school. It found that there had been a "highly individualized, holistic review of each applicant's file" in which race could be properly considered.
In Gratz v. Bollinger, the court struck down the use of race in undergraduate admissions, finding that those applications used a scoring system that should not have awarded points based on race.
"When the Gratz and Grutter decisions came down, that was really kind of a mixed bag," Mr. Reindl said. "It's still a very murky environment, and it's also a very contentious environment."