The Trump administration said the government would no longer encourage schools to use race as a factor in the admissions process, rescinding Obama-era guidance meant to promote diversity among students.
The shift announced Tuesday gives colleges the federal government's blessing to leave race out of admissions and enrollment decisions and underscores the contentious politics that for decades have surrounded affirmation action policies, which have repeatedly been challenged before the Supreme Court.
The Obama administration memos encouraging schools to take race into account were among 24 policy documents revoked by the Justice Department for being "unnecessary, outdated, inconsistent with existing law, or otherwise improper." Attorney General Jeff Sessions called the changes an effort to restore the "rule of law," though civil rights groups decried the move and some universities said they intended to continue their diversity efforts as before.
The action comes amid a high-profile court fight over Harvard University admissions that has attracted the government's attention, as well as Supreme Court turnover expected to produce a more critical eye toward schools' race-conscious admissions policies.
The court's most recent significant ruling on the subject bolstered colleges' use of race among many factors in the admission process. But the opinion's author, Anthony Kennedy, announced his retirement last week, giving President Donald Trump a chance to replace him with a justice who may be more reliably skeptical of admissions programs that take race and ethnicity into account.
The new policy dramatically departs from the stance of the Obama administration, which said schools could consider race in admissions decisions. In one 2011 policy document, the administration said courts had recognized schools' "compelling interest" in ensuring racially diverse populations on campuses.
"Institutions are not required to implement race-neutral approaches if, in their judgment, the approaches would be unworkable," the guidance said. "In some cases, race-neutral approaches will be unworkable because they will be ineffective to achieve the diversity the institution seeks."
That guidance has now been rescinded, as have about a half-dozen similar documents, including some that sought to explain court rulings affirming the use of race to make admissions decisions.
In one such document, the Obama administration stated, "As the Supreme Court has recognized, diversity has benefits for all students, and today's students must be prepared to succeed in a diverse society and an increasingly global workforce."
The Trump administration's announcement is more in line with Bush-era policy that discouraged affirmative action and instead encouraged the use of race-neutral alternatives, like percentage plans and economic diversity programs.
Though such guidance doesn't have the force of law, schools could presumably use it to defend themselves against lawsuits over admission policies.
The Trump administration's Justice Department had already signaled concern about the use of race in admissions decisions.
The department, for instance, sided this year with Asian-American plaintiffs who contend in a lawsuit against Harvard that the school unlawfully limits how many Asian students are admitted.
Students for Fair Admissions, the group suing Harvard, is led by Ed Blum, a legal strategist who also helped white student Abigail Fisher sue the University of Texas for alleged discrimination in a case that reached the Supreme Court.
Blum said Tuesday the organization "welcomes any governmental actions that will eliminate racial classifications and preferences in college admissions." Harvard, meanwhile, said it would continue considering race as an admissions factor to create a "diverse campus community where students from all walks of life have the opportunity to learn with and from each other."
Civil rights groups criticized the Trump administration's announcement, saying it went against decades of court precedent permitting colleges to take race into account.
"We condemn the Department of Education's politically motivated attack on affirmative action and deliberate attempt to discourage colleges and universities from pursuing racial diversity at our nation's colleges and universities," Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in a statement.
Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association, said "affirmative action has proven to be one of the most effective ways to create diverse and inclusive classrooms." She said the announcement underscored the stakes surrounding the upcoming Supreme Court appointment.
The high court has been generally accepting of considering race in admissions decisions to achieve diversity. In a 2016 opinion written by Kennedy, the court granted affirmative action policies a victory by permitting race to be among the factors considered in the college admission process.
The ruling bitterly disappointed conservatives who thought Kennedy would be part of a Supreme Court majority to outlaw affirmative action in education. Justice Antonin Scalia died after the court heard arguments in the case but before the decision was handed down.
The new affirmative action guidance may add to an already contentious fight over the next justice.
With Trump expected to announce his nominee next week, the issue should be a central part of any confirmation process, said Howard University law school dean Danielle Holley-Walker.
She called the new guidance "highly unfortunate and counterproductive" and said the decision is another indication that the Justice Department under Sessions is likely to be aggressive toward schools that do continue to factor in race in admissions decisions.
"People have been talking about precedent in regard to Roe. v. Wade" — the landmark 1973 ruling affirming a woman's right to abortion — "but it's important to remember that affirmative action has been a precedent for the past 40 years," she said. "This is a clear attack on precedent. Any Supreme Court nominee needs to be asked if they support precedent related to affirmative action."
Associated Press writers Mark Sherman, Jesse Holland, Collin Binkley and Errin Haines Whack contributed to this report.