The Supreme Court justices ruled six-to-three in favor of a group called "Students for Fair Admissions," founded by anti-affirmative action activist Edward Blum, in its appeal of lower court rulings upholding programs used at the two prestigious schools to foster a diverse student population.
President Joe Biden on Thursday urged colleges to take into account challenges that applicants face, including racial discrimination, during the admissions process after the Supreme Court struck down the admissions considerations.
Former President Donald Trump and other top U.S. Republican leaders hailed the decision, with the Trump saying the ruling marked "a great day for America."
In writing the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Robers is quoted in Politico.com as saying "Both (university admissions) programs lack sufficiently focused and measurable objectives warranting the use of race, unavoidably employ race in a negative manner, involve racial stereotyping, and lack meaningful end points. We have never permitted admissions programs to work in that way, and we will not do so today."
Justice Clarence Thomas, — the nation's second Black justice, who had long called for an end to affirmative action — wrote separately that the decision "sees the universities’ admissions policies for what they are: rudderless, race-based preferences designed to ensure a particular racial mix in their entering classes."
Harvard and the University of North Carolina, the two universities targeted in the lawsuit, have said they use race as only one factor in a host of individualized evaluations for admission without quotas - permissible under previous Supreme Court precedents - and that curbing its consideration would cause a significant drop in enrollment of students from under-represented groups.
Many institutions of higher education, corporations and military leaders have long backed affirmative action on campuses not simply to remedy racial inequity and exclusion in American life, but also, to ensure a talent pool that can bring a range of perspectives to the workplace and U.S. armed forces ranks.
Justice Roberts' majority opinion, however, does not completely ban the perspective of race in admissions, saying "Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise."
Critics, who have tried to topple these policies for decades, argue these policies are themselves discriminatory.
The dispute presented the Supreme Court's conservative majority an opportunity to overturn its prior rulings allowing race-conscious admissions policies.
Blum's group in lawsuits filed in 2014 accused UNC of discriminating against white and Asian American applicants and Harvard of bias against Asian American applicants.
Students for Fair Admissions alleged that the adoption by UNC, a public university, of an admissions policy that is not race neutral violates the guarantee to equal protection of the law under the U.S. Constitution's 14th Amendment.
The group contended Harvard, a private university violated Title VI of a landmark federal law called the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars discrimination based on race, color or national origin under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.
Lower courts rejected the group's claims, prompting appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court asking the justices to overturn a key precedent holding that colleges could consider race as one factor in the admissions process because of the compelling interest of creating a diverse student body.
Affirmative action has withstood Supreme Court scrutiny for decades, most recently in a 2016 ruling involving a white student, backed by Blum, who sued the University of Texas after being rejected for admission.
Many U.S. conservatives and Republican elected officials have argued that giving advantages to one race is unconstitutional regardless of the motivation or circumstances.
Some have advanced the argument that remedial preferences are no longer needed because America has moved beyond racist policies of the past such as segregation and is becoming increasingly diverse.
Politico.com quotes a sharply-worded dissent by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, stating "By ending race-conscious college admissions, this Court closes the door of opportunity that the Court’s precedents helped open to young students of every race," she wrote, reading portions of her dissent aloud from the bench – an unusual step that signals impassioned opposition. She declared that the court announced "a requirement designed to ensure all race-conscious plans fail."
This story was compiled from Reuters, Associated Press, and Politico.com.