Complainants Allege CU Denver, Boulder Discriminate Against White, Asian Students

A nonprofit filed civil rights complaints against the University of Colorado (CU) Boulder and CU Denver over a federal scholarship program, which the schools participate in, that serves underrepresented students.
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Published on November 29, 2023
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  • The complaints allege that the federal McNair Scholars Program illegally discriminates against white and Asian students.
  • The scholarship program helps prepare undergraduate students — who either are first-generation students with a financial need or are from traditionally underrepresented groups in graduate education — for doctoral programs.
  • A University of Colorado Boulder spokesperson told BestColleges it is evaluating the complaint and will respond to any inquiry from the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights.

A Cornell professor's nonprofit submitted complaints to the U.S. Department of Education's (ED) Office for Civil Rights (OCR) against the University of Colorado (CU) Denver and CU Boulder for their race-based scholarship programs.

The Equal Protection Project (EPP), a nonprofit that advocates against diversity programs, filed the complaints Nov. 27, alleging the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program (McNair Scholars Program) discriminates against white and Asian students. The two schools take part in the federal program.

The complaints allege that applicants who aren't Black, African American, American Indian, Alaskan Native, Hispanic/Latino/a, or Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander are excluded from consideration unless they are a low-income, first-generation student.

The McNair Scholars Programs at CU Denver and CU Boulder discriminate on the basis of race and ethnicity, William A. Jacobson, founder of EPP, told BestColleges. Such blatant discrimination always has been unlawful, but any doubt was resolved by the Supreme Court recently in its affirmative action ruling. A goal of ‘diversity’ no longer can be used as an excuse to discriminate.

The McNair Scholars Program — named after America's second Black astronaut Dr. Ronald McNair — is an ED-funded program that 151 institutions participate in. The program prepares undergraduate students for doctoral studies. They are either first-generation students with a financial need or are from traditionally underrepresented groups in graduate education with strong academic potential.

The complaints claim the program violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act by using federal money to create, support, and promote a racially segregated program and the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause.

The complaints call for ED to provide remedial relief for those excluded from the McNair Scholars Program at CU Boulder and CU Denver and to ensure all present and future programs comply with the U.S. Constitution and civil rights laws.

The harm from racial educational barriers is that it racializes not just the specific program but the entire campus, Jacobson said. Sending a message to students that access to opportunities is dependent on race is damaging to the fabric of campus. Universities need to adopt the approach of, which is that there is no ‘good’ form of racism, and the remedy for racism is not more racism.

It is no excuse that this is a federal program. It is instituted voluntarily at CU Denver and CU Boulder. They could have and should have just said no to a discriminatory program.

A CU Denver spokesperson told BestColleges that the school had not received a complaint, and it's inappropriate for the university to comment since the program is an ED program, not a CU Denver program.

A CU Boulder spokesperson told BestColleges the school had just become aware of the complaint.

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, the CU Boulder spokesperson said.

BestColleges previously reported that despite the U.S. Supreme Court ruling banning affirmative action in admissions, financial aid is unaffected.

Despite unclear guidance, some colleges are already banning race-based scholarships, placing students of color who rely on these scholarships in peril of being unable to fund their higher education, Z.W. Taylor, assistant professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, wrote for BestColleges.

Moreover, eliminating scholarships for students of color will likely impact the lowest-income students who most need gift aid, even though the Supreme Court did not strike down scholarships based on socioeconomic status.