Pam, a high school senior, appears to have all she needs for a successful college career: excellent grades, proven leadership qualities, athletic ability. But looming in the background are legal questions that may reduce or even eliminate financial resources she needs to attend college.
Now that most of her college applications for next fall are filed, Pam is waiting to see which universities will offer her the most attractive scholarship-and-loan packages. Her parents can underwrite some of her college costs. But without outside aid, she just won't be able to meet expenses.
The Supreme Court of the United States has been asked to decide whether the government can refuse to guarantee bank loans for students who attend colleges that won't specify whether they discriminate racially or by sex.
The debate brings up questions that could affect Pam:
* Is a federally guaranteed educational loan to a student a form of federal aid to that student or to the college or university in which she enrolls?
* If a college fails to meet federal regulations in one program (no sex discrimination in athletics, for example), can the government penalize the entire institution and its students?
* Do colleges have a constitutional right (under privacy and freedom-of-association guarantees) to resist government scrutiny of their programs and practices?
So far, the courts have flipflopped over most of these issues. Only in the area of racial discrimination have they been fairly clear. For example, tax-exempt status has been denied to Bob Jones University in South Carolina, which bars interracial dating, and Goldsboro Christian Schools Inc., in North Carolina, which accepts no blacks. These cases are being reviewed by the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, two circuit courts, the Third and the Sixth, have recently sent down opposing opinions regarding the rights of small private colleges that refuse to sign antidiscrimination certifications for federal loan funds.
Overthrowing a district court decision, the Court of Appeals in the ''Third'' ruled that Grove City College, in western Pennsylvania, is subject to government anti-bias rules, since its students receive federal grants and loans. The court said that although the college has not received federal money directly, it benefits from the financial aid given its students.
If this decision stands, Grove City must comply with federal rules or its students will lose thousands of dollars in aid.
On the other hand, in the case of Hillsdale College, in southern Michigan, the Sixth Circuit refused to cut off student aid funds, despite the school's unwillingness to certify nondiscrimination. It ruled that the federal government's regulations are too broad, ''cover[ing] the entire college, and are not limited to the student loan and grant program.''
Grove City and Hillsdale are schools that take pride in refusing any direct federal aid. The former has strong ''Christian'' underpinnings and an educational philosophy that rings of self-sufficiency and autonomy. Similarly, Hillsdale is committed to what it describes as traditional values of freedom, individual dignity, free enterprise, and limited government.
Hillsdale president George C. Roche III says: ''For us, it's basically a matter of consistency. Never since its founding in 1844 has Hillsdale College accepted a penny of aid from any institution of government - local, state, or federal. Never has it submitted to the heavy hand of government control that necessarily accompanies the soft hand of government help.''
Grove City president Charles S. MacKenzie raises the whole question of direct and indirect government control, particularly in terms of a religious school. ''But it's broader than the religious issue,'' he says. ''Academic freedom is at the heart of the whole case.''
Dr. MacKenzie further challenges the Third Circuit rationale which holds that there is virtually no difference between aid to a student and aid to a college. ''It's like saying that if a little old lady on social security puts money in a church offering, she is a pipeline of government money,'' he asserts.
Other private colleges, especially church-related ones, indicate that if the recent Grove City decision prevails, they will probably lose students. Like Grove City and Hillsdale, many insist they don't discriminate. But they balk at federal government pressures to make them so certify.
A spokesman for a fundementalist four-year liberal arts college in Virginia says: ''We would be concerned about the federal government making decisions which affect our religious convictions. . . . We've had far too much involvement by the Supreme Court and the federal government.''
A business officer of another small liberal arts school in the Midwest concedes: ''If Grove City is upheld, they would come back probably and say: Sign or else! And we wouldn't sign.''
And Paul C. Richards, director of public communications at Brigham Young University (BYU), in Provo, Utah, says that the result on his school would be ''adverse if they [the Supreme Court justices] go the Grove City line.'' Mr. Richards stresses that largely Mormon BYU believes in ''equality and equal rights.'' But he adds that there is also concern about the right of privacy and freedom of religion.
John R. Dellenback, president of the Christian College Consortium (CCC), an educational foundation based in Washington, D.C., that represents over 70 private colleges, including Grove City, says the Third Circuit's compliance regulations of Title IX of Education Amendments of 1972 are inappropriate. He thinks Title IX's intent has been distorted by the Grove City decision. At the same time, Mr. Dellenback opposes any type of institutional discrimination. ''If they [schools] discriminate, then you lower the boom on them,'' he says.
Mr. Dellenback, formerly a US representative from Oregon and director of the Peace Corps, says he believes that when Congress set up student aid programs - such as Basic Educational Opportunity Grants and Guaranteed Student Loans - the intention was to aid individual students rather than the colleges themselves. The foundation head calls for federal lawmakers to draw up clarifying legislation spelling this out.
Meanwhile, the National Women's Law Center, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the government's position in the Grove City case, sees the situation quite differently. Attorney Nancy Duff Campbell insists that if there were no compliance requirement, schools would have no incentive to avoid discrimination. Unlike Mr. Dellenback, she holds that Congress's intent in drawing up Title IX was to make aid to the student tantamount to aid to the college. ''It [the grant or loan] must be used for tuition and educational purposes,'' she says.
The US Department of Education's position is that Title IX is patterned after Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The department holds that just as the latter was designed to ensure that no federal funds would be ''expended in any fashion'' which would subsidize racial discrimination, the former was similarly aimed at sex bias.
So far, no financial assistance has been denied Grove City students as a result of the Third Circuit decision. And legal experts point out that, at present, this ruling would affect students only in schools within Grove City's geographical region. A US Supreme Court edict, however, will likely determine whether Title IX regulations (and compliance requirements) are ''program specific'' (a la the Hillsdale decision) or should be applied to an entire institution.
Like Pam, many thousands of students across the nation seeking financial help for college have a strong vested interest in what the Supreme Court decides.