"We condemn the Department of Education's politically motivated attack on affirmative action and deliberate attempt to discourage colleges and universities from pursuing racial diversity at our nation's colleges and universities", Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in a statement.
The move indicates federal support for schools to adopt a race-blind admissions process and brings the highly contentious issue of affirmative action once again to the fore.
The administration's action, which could ripple through the education system from prekindergarten through college, was the latest of several measures critics say have eroded civil rights protections in classrooms and on college campuses. We have a Supreme Court that in recent years has been active in giving directives and direction to colleges and universities about what they can or cannot do. "It would be wise to consider if their use of race is likely to be something that the courts of the future will be likely to uphold", Clegg said.
A lawsuit against Harvard over the alleged discrimination against Asian-Americans is working its way through the courts now. President Barack Obama's policies interpreting those rulings sought to show schools and colleges how they could use race voluntarily in the interest of promoting diversity. A Justice Department spokesman said an announcement was imminent.
The Supreme Court has been generally accepting of considering race in admissions decisions.
Outside parties will be filing briefs in the Harvard case in the coming weeks.
"Too many Asian Americans applying to elite schools are discriminated against on account of their race", said Linda Chavez, who co-founded the CEO think-tank.
The Obama administration believed that students benefit from being surrounded by diverse classmates, so in 2011, the administration offered schools a potential road map to establishing affirmative action policies that could withstand legal scrutiny.
Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of the Council for Equal Opportunity, and other critics of the Obama-era guidelines claimed they actively went beyond Supreme Court precedent and encouraged racial bias.
Still, the rescinding of the Obama guidelines could have a chilling effect on some universities as they consider the makeup of incoming freshman classes, advocates of affirmative action said. "The federal government should not threaten colleges and universities in their efforts to construct inclusive campuses".
The Republican Trump administration's move is being viewed by Democrats and liberals as a way to weaken affirmative action.
The administration revived the probe past year after Obama civil rights officials. It comes as the Trump administration continues its crackdown on immigration, including asylum seekers.
"This guidance restated the law and our national commitment to diversity".