The Obama administration told colleges and universities Friday they can continue to use admissions to increase diversity among their students, even in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling that could potentially open the door to more challenges.
"Racially diverse educational environments help to prepare students to succeed in our increasingly diverse nation," the administration said in a letter to schools.
The Supreme Court ruled June 24 that schools should approve the use of race as a factor in admissions only after concluding "that no workable race-neutral alternatives would produce the educational benefits of diversity." The 7-1 decision, stemming from a case challenging the University of Texas admission plan, did not question the underpinnings of affirmative action.
Civil rights advocates celebrated that the door on affirmative action had not been slammed shut. But at the same time, the decision appeared to embolden challengers who feel they've been discriminated against.
In its Friday letter the administration said the court "preserved the well-established legal principle" that colleges and universities have a compelling interest in a diverse student body. It was signed by Catherine E. Lhamon, the Education Department's assistant secretary in the Office for Civil Rights, and Jocelyn Samuels, the Justice Department's acting assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Division.
Lhamon said the administration hopes colleges and universities aren't making changes in admissions policies because of the ruling.
In an accompanying "questions and answers" paper, the administration said race can be considered as long as the admission programs can show that the criteria are narrowly tailored.
"I would hope that colleges and universities would undertake these programs in carefully structured ways that would avoid legal challenge, and we certainly are available to try to help them do that," Samuels said.
The high court ordered the appeals court to take another look at the case of Abigail Fisher, a white Texan who was not offered a spot at the university's flagship Austin campus in 2008. Fisher has since received her undergraduate degree from Louisiana State University.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Friday that a diverse enrollment, "promotes cross-racial understanding and dialogue, reduces racial isolation and helps to break down stereotypes."