DENVER — An anti-affirmative action group has filed federal complaints against the University of Colorado Boulder and University of Colorado Denver alleging its distribution of federal scholarships are race-based and discriminatory.
Both schools participate in the federal federal Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program, also known as the McNair Scholars Program. The Equal Protection Project claims white and Asian students face additional hurdles when being considered for the scholarships.
"We have filed close to 20 similar complaints for other universities," said attorney William Jacobson, president and founder of the Equal Protection Project. "Our goal is to stop these bad practices."
Jacobson, who helped write the civil rights complaints against both schools, alleges the McNair Scholars Program has the goal to “increase the attainment of Ph.D. degrees by students from underrepresented segments of society." McNair scholars receive a $2,800 internship stipend, mentorship and other academic opportunities.
According to the complaint, eligible students must be low-income, first-generation students or a member of a group that is underrepresented in graduate education. It lists underrepresented groups as Black, Hispanic, Alaskan Native, or Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander.
The complaints claim the schools execute the program in a discriminatory manner because “students who identify as white or Asian – must demonstrate that they are economically disadvantaged in order to be eligible.” Meanwhile, the complaints allege "‘underrepresented’ groups are not required to prove any economic need.”
"What they've done is they have created a hurdle that some students have to jump over, but others don't based upon their race or ethnicity," said Jacobson. "And that's the problem with those scholarships."
The Equal Protect Project claims the schools are violating the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as well as a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that effectively gutted affirmative action.
The group is asking the Office of Civil Rights to open a formal investigation, force the colleges to stop their practices and provide a remedy for students who may have been excluded from the program based on race.
Jacobson said multiple organizations that have faced similar complaints from the Equal Protection Project have altered or dropped their programs in response.
Colorado-based civil rights attorney Terrance Carroll said fighting a complaint could escalate to a lawsuit and become costly and time-consuming for universities.
"We'll have administrators who will become risk averse," he said. "They don't want to come to court, and so they look really long and hard at whether we should have programs like this at all. And sadly, unfortunately, I think many colleges and universities will likely back away from these types of programs."
A spokesperson for CU Denver said the university has not received a complaint regarding its program, and the "complaint centers on a U.S. Department of Education program, not a CU Denver program."
A spokesperson for CU Boulder said the university does not award scholarships based on race. In a statement, the spokesperson said the university is evaluating the complaint.
"The University of Colorado Boulder just became aware of the complaint filed by the Equal Protection Project against the university to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR). Our campus strives to comply with all federal requirements related to the awarding of financial aid, is evaluating this complaint and will respond to any inquiry we might receive from OCR."