At the University of Minnesota, administrators decided to make a bold move. They scrapped a "points-based" admissions system that gave minorities an edge by weighing race along with test scores and grades, replacing it with one that used a more "holistic" approach to achieve diversity.
That was two years ago.
Today that decision by the university that straddles the Mississippi River looks prescient.
Since Monday's Supreme Court rulings, which permitted the use of race in college admissions but outlawed numbers-bound approaches, some public universities have announced they will begin retooling their admissions procedures. But at other elite institutions, including Minnesota, the game was afoot well before the gavel dropped. At the University of Texas at Austin and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for example, a quiet shift to a more individualized - and costly - admissions process has been under way for several years.
Others, however, must now scramble. Those with a more mechanized approach to affirmative action will have to adjust their admissions systems in the wake of the court's rebuke to the point system used by the University of Michigan.
But the high court's other ruling Monday, upholding the University of Michigan's law school admissions policy, has largely affirmed what some call the "holistic" style of admissions used by most elite, private universities.
Meanwhile, some public universities that have selective admissions processes had already moved so decisively away from consideration of race in admissions that this week's high court endorsement of the concept of affirmative action could prompt them to shift toward some consideration of applicants' race - but using a more nuanced system that takes many more factors into account.
"The court has sent a clear message to all institutions nationwide that have a numerically based admissions system that they're going to have to revisit that," says Travis Reindl, director of state policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities in Washington, which represents public four-year institutions.
The University of Minnesota began shifting away from a just-the-numbers approach, in part, because of past court rulings in Texas and Georgia that overturned systems that gave points for race. But it also came about because administrators believed it was the right thing to do and because of dissatisfaction with the old system.
"It was difficult to manage our enrollment well," says Wayne Sigler, director of admissions. Also, "parents, applicants, and high school guidance counselors were telling us they wanted each application reviewed."
The Twin Cities campus has a new "holistic" admissions system that will assess each of its 17,326 applicants for the fall semester on 17 different academic and other measures - including a person's race. It's a much more complex system that requires many extra "readers" for thousands of applications.
Other colleges may adapt follow the lead of systems like Minnesota's. In Texas and other states where past federal court rulings had outlawed consideration of race in admission, some elite public and private institutions are plan moves to once again include a person's race when considering an application.
At Rice University, touted as the "Harvard of the South," an official says the court's decision to permit the consideration of race as a plus-factor in admission will finally put them back on "an equal competitive footing" in admissions with other elite schools.
Larry Faulkner, president of the University of Texas at Austin, the nation's largest public university with more than 50,000 students, says his school will immediately begin drafting a new admissions policy, which will consider race as a factor. The goal is to have the admissions system modified by October and in place for applications in the spring of 2004. That means including race as a factor in the holistic review method already used.
Adapting to include race in its "holistic" system doesn't mean throwing away Texas's recent emphasis on a "percentage" system that accepts high-ranking students from every high-school system in the state, he adds. "I think the two can work together."
At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the court's ruling will mesh with that school's already modified system, says Jerry Lucido, director of admissions. "Our practices closely approximate the practices at the law school of Michigan," he says. "We do a comprehensive ... review of a candidate's credentials, looking at academic background and personal qualities."
In fact, despite the momentous ruling, most of the rest of higher education seems unlikely to feel much impact. That's simply because only 400 to 600 of the nation's 4,000 colleges and universities are selective (most accept all applicants) and use race as a factor in admissions. Only perhaps 75 to 100 public universities and colleges will likely be directly affected by the court's ruling.
And in California, the court's decision may have much less impact on elite public institutions. Voters in 1996 passed a referendum that effectively outlawed the use of race in public higher education admissions.
Most elite private colleges, with individualized rather than numerical approaches to admissions, are not affected. "The decision recognizes and embraces the importance of diversity to the educational mission of institutions like ours," says Lawrence Bacow, president of Tufts University, Medford, Mass.
• Kris Axtman in Houston and Elizabeth Nesoff in New York contributed to this report.