The Trump administration on Tuesday withdrew Obama-era policy guidelines that encouraged the consideration of race in college admissions.
The guidelines encourage colleges to voluntarily promote diversity and "avoid racial isolation" in their admissions practices. They were issued to provide guidance on the administration's interpretation of a number of Supreme Court cases related to affirmative action.
The Trump administration signaled the rules could be on the chopping block a year ago, when it began searching for lawyers who were interested in investigating “intentional race-based discrimination” on college campuses. Administration lawyers are investigating a 2015 complaint alleging that Harvard University discriminates against Asian-Americans in its admissions practices.
"The Supreme Court has determined what affirmative action policies are Constitutional, and the Court’s written decisions are the best guide for navigating this complex issue," Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said in a statement. "Schools should continue to offer equal opportunities for all students while abiding by the law."
Reversing the Obama-era guidelines would be the latest move by the Trump administration to reshape higher education policy. In February 2017, the Justice Department withdrew two policy documents related to colleges' enforcement of Title IX, a gender discrimination statute.
Withdrawing the guidelines could add new energy to the debate over affirmative action policies, which the Supreme Court has for decades found constitutional as long as they are paired with certain restrictions regarding the importance of race in admissions decisions and the impact on white students.
The Supreme Court first took up the issue in the 1978 case California v. Bakke, which found that considering race in college admissions could be constitutional if it was one of a number of factors, and not the deciding factor by itself.
In 2003, the court held 5-4 in Grutter v. Bollinger that the University of Michigan Law School had a compelling interest in ensuring a diverse population of students. However, the court held in Gratz v. Bollinger the same year that any affirmative action policy must be narrowly tailored in a way that does not automatically grant admission to minority applicants in a way that would harm white applicants.
In 2016, the court again held that affirmative action was constitutional in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, though Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the opinion, noted that the policy could be required to change through "regular evaluation of data and consideration of student experience."
He wrote that Texas "must tailor its approach in light of changing circumstances, ensuring that race plays no greater role than is necessary to meet its compelling interest."
Kennedy announced his retirement from the court last week. Trump has said he will name Kennedy's replacement from a list of 25 conservative judges compiled by the White House.