The US Supreme Court has backed race-based admissions, which universities say they need to maintain diversity on their campuses.
The decision's potential impact on American higher education is huge. It comes after years of lower court rulings, as well as referendums, that have chipped away at the use of affirmative action programmes in admissions, resulting in a sharp decline in the number of minority students enrolled at US universities.
The court declined to review a lower court decision that upheld race-based admissions at the University of Washington Law School. Three applicants had sued the school saying they were denied entry because they were white.
"The plaintiffs suffered very real damages as a result of being denied admission based on their skin colour," said Curt Levey, director of legal affairs at the Center for Individual Rights and the attorney for the three applicants. But the decision sustained by the higher court held that affirmative action was justified by the need to ensure racial diversity on American campuses. While specific quotas could not be used, it said, race could be used as a factor in admissions.
The University of Washington stopped using race as a factor in admissions in 1998. As it is prevented by a subsequent voter referendum from returning to it, the decision will have little immediate impact there. Other universities, however, have been watching closely to determine whether they can continue using affirmative-action policies.
The ruling may reassure them for now, but the question could come back before the court within a year or two in two other cases now winding their way through the judicial system.
In one, the University of Michigan was ordered to stop using race as a factor in admission to its law school. In another, a court ruled in favour of four white students who sued the University of Texas, saying its law school did not admit them because of their race.
Since then, the representation of minorities at many major universities has fallen, especially in professional schools. The three law schools in the University of California system, for example, have only 14 first-year black students between them.