BOSTON (AP) — Lawsuits filed Monday against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill argue that affirmative action policies should be banned at colleges across the nation.

The federal suits allege Harvard and UNC rely on race-based affirmative action policies that impact admissions of high-achieving white and Asian American students. The Harvard lawsuit also contends that the Ivy League university specifically limits the number of Asian Americans it admits each year.

The Project on Fair Representation, an Alexandria, Virginia-based legal defense fund, said Monday's filings will be the first in a series of legal challenges against colleges across the country in an effort to ban race-based admission policies outright.

"Allowing this issue to be litigated in case after case will only perpetuate the hostilities that proper consideration of race is designed to avoid," state the lawsuits, both of which cite "Students for Fair Admissions" as plaintiff, a nonprofit group based in Austin, Texas made up of recently rejected applicants, prospective students and parents. "Racial preferences are a dangerous tool and may only be used as a last resort."

Both universities defended their admission policies Monday, noting that they are fully compliant with federal law.

"(T)he university continues to affirm the educational benefits diversity brings to students, as well as the importance of preparing students for a diverse society and assuring a pool of strong state leaders by admitting undergraduates from every background," said UNC-Chapel Hill spokesman Rick White.

Harvard University's General Counsel Robert Iuliano pointed out that the Supreme Court's landmark 1978 decision in Regents of University of California v. Bakke, which upheld affirmative action, specifically cited Harvard's admissions plan as a "legally sound approach" to admissions.

"Then and now, the college considers each applicant through an individualized, holistic review having the goal of creating a vibrant academic community that exposes students to a wide-range of differences: background, ideas, experiences, talents and aspirations," he said.

But the lawsuit against Harvard argues that the "holistic approach" the school touts is a large part of the problem.

"Statistical evidence reveals that Harvard uses 'holistic' admissions to disguise the fact that it holds Asian Americans to a far higher standard than other students and essentially forces them to compete against each other for admission," the lawsuit argues.

The lawsuit goes on to allege that Harvard is engaging in "racial balancing," enrolling the "essentially the same percentage" of African Americans, Hispanics, whites, and Asian Americans year after year, even though the application rates and qualifications for each racial group have undergone significant changes over time.

"Harvard's remarkably stable admissions and enrollment figures over time are the deliberate result of system wide intentional racial discrimination designed to achieve a predetermined racial balance of its student body," the lawsuit states.

The lawsuits conclude that "race neutral" policies — such as giving greater consideration to a prospective student's socio-economic background and boosting financial aid, scholarships and minority candidate recruitment efforts — can promote diversity better than affirmative action.

Elite schools should also stop giving preference to so-called "legacy" students and offering early admission deadlines, both of which tend to hurt low income and minority applicants and favor wealthy and white ones, the lawsuits suggests.

The Project on Fair Representation is affiliated with Project Liberty Inc., a nonprofit organization focused on "free market and liberty oriented solutions to society's most pervasive and radial needs," according to its IRS filings.

Project on Fair Representation has been involved in a long-running federal lawsuit in which a white student, Abigail Fisher, is challenging the University of Texas at Austin's affirmative action policy after being denied admission in 2008. That case is likely on its way back to the U.S. Supreme Court, after a lower appeals court earlier this month refused to reconsider the case, as the nation's highest court had ruled last year.

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Associated Press writer Martha Waggoner in Raleigh, North Carolina contributed to this report.