Obama Administration OK's 'Lawful' College Affirmative Action Programs

Administration says colleges can consider race only if race-neutral options did not achieve diversity.

Students rally in front of the U.S. on Oct. 10, 2012 in Washington, DC. The high court is scheduled to hear arguments on Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin and are tasked with ruling on whether the university's consideration of race in admissions is constitutional.
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The Departments of Education and Justice are telling colleges and universities they can continue to consider race in their admissions programs, according to a policy clarification released Friday.

In a letter sent to college and university presidents, the departments say colleges can voluntarily use race as a factor in their admissions policies to achieve greater diversity, as long as they meet strict guidelines already set forth in federal guidance.

[READ: Majority of Americans Oppose Affirmative Action in College Admissions]

"The Departments of Education and Justice strongly support diversity in higher education," the letter says. "Racially diverse educational environments help to prepare students to succeed in our increasingly diverse nation. The future workforce of America must be able to transcend the boundaries of race, language, and culture as our economy becomes more globally interconnected."

The guidance is the first clarification the Obama administration has offered since the Supreme Court avoided a major ruling on June 24 in a closely-watched affirmative action case involving a white student who was denied admission to the University of Texas's flagship Austin campus. The student, Abigail Fisher, argued that she was denied admission because of the school's affirmative action admissions policy. But the Supreme Court, in a 7-1 ruling, neither upheld nor struck down the policy, and sent the case back to a lower court for further review, stating schools could include race as a factor for admissions after determining no other "race-neutral alternatives" would achieve the benefits of diversity.

[OPINION: Is Affirmative Action Fair for College Admittance?

"All the court said is you have to carefully put these plans into effect and the court is going to look at the individual plans in a really rigorous way," says Dennis Parker, director of ACLU's Racial Justice Program. "Certainly the court did not say schools couldn't try for diversity. It didn't say you could never take race into consideration ... So the government's suggestion that schools continue to implement these programs if they've taken the right steps, that makes sense."

Affirmative action advocates saw the Supreme Court ruling as a victory, as it did not question the content of the policy itself.

"As the Court has repeatedly recognized, a diverse student enrollment promotes cross-racial understanding and dialogue, reduces racial isolation, and helps to break down stereotypes," Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said of the ruling in June. "This is critical for the future of our country because racially diverse educational environments help to prepare students to succeed in an increasingly diverse workforce and society."

[ALSO: Higher Education Creates 'White Racial Privilege,' Report Says]

Current guidance allows institutions to consider race as a factor in admissions decisions if such programs meet the government's "strict scrutiny" standard. That is, the colleges and universities must prove that the admissions program is "narrowly tailored to meet the compelling interest in diversity" and that other race-neutral alternatives do not achieve that goal.

But opponents of affirmative action saw the ruling as an endorsement for solely merit-based college admissions policies. Some also say the decision could make it easier for others to challenge the policy in the future, as it reemphasized the importance of this strict scrutiny.

"Because of the nature of strict scrutiny, you need to look at each individual circumstance," Parker says. "You have to look at the details of the plan, you have to look at whether or not the university tried other methods before it started taking race exclusively into account. So it's likely someone else will bring a case."

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