WASHINGTON—The Trump administration will begin directing schools and colleges to adopt race-neutral admissions standards, the Education Department said Tuesday, reversing Obama-era guidelines that encouraged the use of race to promote diversity.
The Obama guidelines, issued jointly by the Education and Justice departments, laid out legal recommendations for schools looking to use race as an admissions factor.
The reversal is among the highest-profile actions by the Trump administration to undo President Barack Obama’s approach to race and affirmative action. The role of race in college admissions has fueled a heated debate for decades, prompting numerous lawsuits and often confronting universities with sensitive decisions.
Trump officials and critics of affirmative action said the Obama guidelines, published between 2011 and 2016, went beyond Supreme Court precedent, actively encouraged racial bias and led schools to believe that legal affirmative action is simpler to achieve than the law allows.
“Just because the courts have ruled that some kinds of racial discrimination are legally permissible does not mean it is appropriate for the federal government to encourage as much of it as people can get away with,” said Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of the Council for Equal Opportunity, which opposes affirmative action in higher education.
In place of the Obama guidelines, Trump officials are reposting a Bush administration document strongly encouraging the use of “race-neutral” methods of admitting students to elementary and secondary schools.
“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,” said Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
Anurima Bargava, who headed civil-rights enforcement in schools under Mr. Obama’s Justice Department and helped craft the Obama-era documents, said they simply offered guidelines to schools and colleges looking to continue using affirmative action legally.
She said the current administration’s action signals that it doesn’t favor racial diversity.
“The law on this hasn’t changed, and the Supreme Court has twice ruled reaffirming the importance of diversity,” Ms. Bargava said. “This is a purely political attack that benefits nobody.”
The new guidelines don’t have the force of law, but they represent the administration’s legal viewpoint. Schools that keep race-conscious admissions intact risk federal investigations or the loss of federal funding.
The move comes as the Justice Department is investigating whether Harvard University is illegally discriminating against Asian-American students by holding them to a higher standard than other applicants. The Trump administration revived the probe last year, after Obama civil-rights officials dismissed a similar complaint.
It also comes weeks ahead of an upcoming deadline in a separate lawsuit against Harvard, stemming from the same complaint, in which the Justice Department has filed a so-called statement of interest.
That suit, filed in 2014 by a group called Students for Fair Admissions, alleges Harvard intentionally discriminates against Asian-Americans by limiting the number of Asian students who are admitted. It is expected to go to trial in October.
The plaintiffs say in court filings that the school has displayed a “stunning failure to take the elementary steps required by the law” to achieve diversity without taking race into account—such as considering applicants’ socioeconomic backgrounds, eliminating early admissions and increasing community-college transfers.
In a statement, Harvard spokeswoman Melodie Jackson said the school “will continue to vigorously defend its right, and that of all colleges and universities, to consider race as one factor among many in college admissions, which has been upheld by the Supreme Court for more than 40 years.”
The action to rescind the Obama-era guidelines is likely to escalate a long-running national debate over the role of race in college admissions, an issue the U.S. Supreme Court has revisited on several occasions since the 1970s.
In 2016, the high court reaffirmed the practice in a 4-3 decision, but Justice Anthony Kennedy in that opinion left the door open to future legal challenges by saying universities must continue to review their affirmative-action policies to assess their positive and negative effects.
Justice Kennedy has since announced his retirement, and advocates on both sides say his successor, whom Mr. Trump is expected to nominate within days, may take a more negative view of affirmative action.
The decision to rescind the guidelines, made jointly by Ms. DeVos and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, reflects a broader push by the administration to scale back Mr. Obama’s more activist approach on protecting racial minorities.
The Education Department is also considering repealing guidelines directing schools to ensure they don’t discipline a disproportionate number of minority students.
Kenneth Marcus, confirmed last month as the head of the Education Department’s civil-rights office, has long voiced opposition to affirmative action, including during his time at the helm of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights during the Bush administration.
Ted Mitchell, President of the American Council on Education, a trade group representing university presidents, said the administration’s decision removes an important tool for achieving diversity.
“At a time when our society grows ever more diverse, and the need for engagement with individuals from other backgrounds is vitally important, the federal government should not threaten colleges and universities in their efforts to construct inclusive campuses,” Mr. Mitchell said.
Mr. Sessions early in his tenure ordered the Justice Department to review and eliminate past policies that flouted the will of Congress, or were otherwise outdated or out of step with his agenda. The policies rescinded Tuesday were among 24 documents Mr. Sessions deemed unnecessary or improper, the department said in a statement.
“The department is firmly committed to enforcing the law and to protecting all Americans from all forms of race-based discrimination,” said Justice Department spokesman Devin O’Malley.
—Melissa Korn and Sadie Gurman contributed to this article.
Write to Michelle Hackman at Michelle.Hackman@wsj.com