WILL sues state higher education board to stop 36-year-old scholarship program targeted at minority students

    Marquette University's Johnson Hall
    Johnston Hall on the Marquette University campus Milwaukee, Wisconsin.(Photo by SCUMATT, (CC BY 3.0) CC BY 3.0)

    The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) filed a lawsuit in Jefferson County Circuit Court this week alleging that the Wisconsin Higher Educational Aids Board (HEAB)was breaking the law when it gave scholarships targeted at students of certain races. 

    The minority grant program, established in 1985, targets student aid at students who are Black, Hispanic, Native American and immigrants or descendants of immigrants from Laos, Vietnam or Cambodia following the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. Students receive between $250 and $2,500 in aid. The program goes to students in Wisconsin’s technical colleges, private universities and tribal colleges. The UW System operates a similar program for its students. 

    The state also provides aid to nursing students, teaching students, hearing/visually impaired students and veterans. 

    The plaintiffs in the WILL lawsuit, a Thai woman and white man from Madison with a teenage son, allege that this program constitutes racial discrimination against white students, African immigrants and Asian students from countries other than Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. 

    “The Wisconsin Constitution guarantees equality under the law, beginning as follows: ‘All people are born equally free and independent,’” the lawsuit states. “Yet the State of Wisconsin ignores this basic guarantee of equal rights by using taxpayer funds to discriminate against college students based on race, national origin, and alienage.” 

    The HEAB’s 2019 annual report on the program shows that 80% of grant recipients were either still in school or had received a degree or certificate. Most of the students who received money from the program in the 2018-19 school year attended Milwaukee Technical College. 

    “Without this grant, I would not be able to afford school. I’ve gotten awesome grades, learned so much, and I’m so close to my dream as a nurse,” a Cardinal Stritch University student says in the report. “This grant makes it financially possible for me to complete school.”

    The report highlights how the program helps minority students access opportunities they otherwise wouldn’t have had. 

    “Receiving the Minority Undergraduate Retention Grant was important to me because I really wanted to finish school to further my career,” a Milwaukee Area Technical College student said in the report. “As a single mother, I put my education on hold to care for [my children] and, in turn, I still had a lot of loans to pay back. This grant assisted in me completing my financial obligations that tie with furthering my education and limited the need for me to add to the loans I already owe. It was an honor and privilege to be able to utilize this grant for my educational goals.”

    The suit is seeking an order from the court that the program is unconstitutional and an injunction against race-based qualifications in student aid from the state. 

    The U.S. Supreme Court has generally ruled that policy makers are allowed to target policies at certain races to remedy the effects of past discrimination — such as affirmative action programs — as long as those policies don’t include specific racial quotas. 

    The WILL lawsuit echoes efforts made by a conservative group in federal court to end affirmative action. That group’s lawsuit — currently in front of the U.S. Supreme Court — alleges that Harvard University discriminates against Asian students in its admissions process.

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    Henry Redman
    Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.