AKRON, Ohio (AP) _ In a blunt exchange on racial tensions, President Clinton praised a college student today who admitted that seeing a poorly dressed black man on the street makes him ``a little bit scared.''

``That's a pretty gutsy thing for you to admit,'' Clinton told Jonathan Morgan, a white University of Akron student who joined eight other panelists at a presidential town hall meeting on race relations.

``But that's the kind of thing we have to get out on the table,'' Clinton told Morgan, saying he was proud of the young man.

The exchange was just what Clinton advisers hoped to produce by putting the media savvy president on a stool, microphone in hand, in front of a hand-picked audience instructed to talk frankly about the nation's racial divide.

Following months of deliberately avoiding tense racial issues, Clinton hoped the meeting would provide the candor needed to jump-start his laggard program for racial reconciliation.

After opening remarks in which he unveiled a new education initiative, Clinton left the lectern and sat on the stool, then told his audience: ``Forget about all these people who are out there staring at you.

``When this is over, I want you to do this all over again at work and in other groups that your in ... because what we're trying to do here is drop a pebble in a pond and have it reverberate all across the country.''

Though Clinton and his panelists stuck largely to platitudes, there was some blunt talk.

D.J. Beatty, a black University of Akron student, said a poor white youth can put on a nice pair of clothes, go to the mall and look middle-class. ``I can't change the color of my skin,'' he said.

Beatty strongly argued for affirmative action programs, getting a sympathetic ear from Clinton.

Morgan, the white student, said TV stars like Bill Cosby helped him to see blacks as equals. Other shows, however, have affected him differently, leading Morgan to admit that when he sees a poorly dressed black man, ``I might be a little bit scared.''

Clinton said blacks and whites should not be afraid to joke about their differences. His audience paid heed.

Ronald Fowler, a black pastor at the Arlington Church of God, joked, ``We've never done country music well.''

After the laughter subsided, Clinton quipped, ``I'll probably get a wire from Charlie Pride this afternoon.'' Pride is a black country music singer.

In his opening remarks, Clinton announced plans to create ``education opportunity zones'' modeled along economic development zones. He wants to provide financial incentives to 15 to 25 poor school districts that adopt dramatic reforms such as closing bad schools and firing bad teachers.

But he said government policies alone can't ease racial strife.

``Yes, there is a public responsibility, but this country in the end rises or falls on the day-to-day activities of its ordinary citizens,'' he said.

The president moderated a 90-minute discussion with about 65 students and community leaders, the first in a series of such meetings.

An audience of about 3,000 watched the meeting at the University of Akron. Tickets were distributed privately through the university, local politicians and Coming Together, a local community group that has worked for better race relations.

The forum was broadcast on C-SPAN, and the White House said it was encouraging people to organize ``watching parties'' and have their own discussions.

Since Clinton announced his effort last June, neither he nor his advisers have taken up racial issues that are laced with tension, such as a proposed apology for slavery or California's ban on affirmative action.

The White House has moved in recent days to bring conservatives into the debate, hoping to spice it up, but it also continues to cling to an approach that avoids blunt confrontation.

The White House admitted Tuesday that it should have moved sooner to hear the voices of critics in planning the race effort. ``It may have been more useful to bring ... folks like that into the mix earlier,'' White House spokesman Mike McCurry said.

Tuesday, aides unveiled a public-service announcement aimed at getting youth ages 17-24 involved in Clinton's effort. It shows young people expressing general views on race with comments such as, ``We can end prejudice if we talk to one another.''

Aides also announced a series of intimate ``One America conversations,'' to be convened by Cabinet secretaries, White House aides and members of Clinton's race advisory board in venues around the country in the days following Wednesday's meeting in Akron.