WASHINGTON - For 23 years, universities across the country that rely on affirmative action have been guided by a basic principle: So long as they do not set quotas, racial preferences may be used in admissions to ensure a diverse student body.
The origin of that premise is a 1978 opinion by Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell, which said that though set-asides are unconstitutional, schools may use race as a "plus factor" to achieve student diversity.
What has long been a guiding principle, though, is increasingly under attack. In a series of decisions during the past few years, federal courts have concluded that Powell's opinion is not binding and that diversity might not be enough justification for racial preferences.
The latest expression of that view came Monday, when a federal appeals court in Atlanta struck down an admissions policy at the University of Georgia that gave bonus points to non-white applicants. Responding to the school's claim that its policy was designed to promote diversity, the appeals court said it was not bound by Powell's statements because they reflected only his view and had not been endorsed by a Supreme Court majority.
The court also said that even if diversity could justify affirmative action, the university's policy was unconstitutional because it placed too much emphasis on race while ignoring other factors - such as socioeconomic status and geography - that also contribute to student diversity.
Education experts say the ruling, along with others that preceded it, has put many college officials on edge. Having designed their policies on the basis of Powell's opinion, they now face the possibility that, ultimately, the opinion won't survive.
"This calls into question what many universities have viewed as the gospel," said Sheldon Steinbach, general counsel for the American Council on Education, an umbrella group for colleges.
The court of appeals' decision also forces universities to confront questions about how to define diversity in a student body. For many years, universities have pursued diversity mainly by granting racial preferences to blacks, Hispanics and other minorities.
But the appeals court said that view of diversity was too narrow. In addition to race, it said, universities must consider a broad range of other characteristics that could increase campus diversity.
"While we can assume that racial diversity may be one component of a diverse student body, it is not the only component," the court stated.
"To take a few obvious examples, a white applicant from a disadvantaged rural area in Appalachia may well have more to offer a Georgia public university such as UGA - from the standpoint of diversity - than a non-white applicant from an affluent family and a suburban Atlanta high school."
Under the University of Georgia policy, about 85 percent of those admitted were accepted strictly on the basis of academic criteria. The remainder were evaluated under a system in which they received bonus points for meeting any of seven criteria intended to ensure diversity, ranging from being a racial minority to being active in extracurricular activities.
Some legal scholars said it was unclear why that policy did not satisfy the court of appeals' standard. Though the university did not consider all factors that can contribute to diversity, they said, it did not limit consideration to race.
"The question is, how far does a school need to go?" said Richard Banks, a law professor at Stanford University. "If you have seven factors, most people would say that shows a genuine effort to promote diversity beyond just race."
The 11th Circuit did not answer that question directly, but it provided some clues. First, the court suggested that if a school decided to consider race as part of a broad effort to achieve diversity, it must take into account all the characteristics that can help produce a diverse student body, not just a handful.
The court also indicated that race could not be given more weight than other diversity factors. Finally, the court said a school could not pursue diversity by awarding numerical points to applicants who fell into certain pre-determined categories. Instead, colleges must look at applicants individually and consider how each one might add to campus diversity.
Some schools follow such an approach. Admissions officials at the University of Maryland, for example, say they do not award bonus points based on race but do seek racial diversity. Many smaller elite schools also conduct an individual analysis of each application that takes account of race without giving it a numerical value.
But for some schools, that approach might prove too arduous. Particularly at large state universities, which might receive as many as 20,000 or 30,000 applications a year, the cost and time required for reading each application individually can be enormous. At Maryland, the admissions office employs 50 staff members, including about 18 whose primary job is to review applications.