Grove City College v. Bell (1984) stands out as a dispute in which the U.S. Supreme Court restricted the application of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 at a private college that accepted no direct federal funding on its own but had large number of students who received federally funded grants. Grove City created a firestorm of controversy, because the Court maintained that while the U.S. Department of Education (ED) could terminate funding, it could do so only for the grant program that was subjected to Title IX if college officials refused to sign a form indicting their compliance with the statute. In so ruling, the Court refused to allow the ED to sanction to the entire institution. Dissatisfied by the outcome in Grove City, Congress essentially superseded it three years later with the enactment of the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987, thereby interpreting Title IX more expansively.
Facts of the Case
The dispute began when officials at Grove City College refused to accept state and federal financial assistance in an effort to preserve institutional autonomy. However, the college admitted a large number of students who received Basic Educational Opportunity Grants (BEOGs). As a result, the ED determined that the college was a recipient of federal financial assistance, which triggered the application of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Consequently, officials at the ED asked administrators at the college to sign an Assurance of Compliance that they would comply with the requirements of Title IX.
When officials at the college refused to sign the assurance form, the ED initiated an administrative proceeding. As a result, the ED terminated financial assistance to students at Grove City College until such time as college officials signed the Assurance of Compliance. In response to a suit filed by the college and four of its students, a federal trial court in Pennsylvania ruled that while the students’ BEOGs constituted federal financial assistance, the ED could not terminate the aid due to institutional refusal to sign the Assurance of Compliance. However, the Third Circuit reversed in favor of the ED, finding that the funds could be withheld in order to force college officials to sign the Assurance of Compliance. Displeased with the result, the college appealed to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court’s Ruling
On further review, in a seven-to-two decision authored by Justice White, the Supreme Court affirmed that Title IX’s coverage was triggered because some students received BEOGs to pay for their education, and thus the ED had the authority to act. At the same time, though, the Court pointed out that the receipt of BEOGs did not trigger institution-wide coverage of Title IX. Rather, the Court thought that because the BEOGs were assistance to the college’s financial aid program, only the program that was directly affected could be regulated under Title IX. In fact, even though the BEOG funds eventually reached the college’s general operating funds, the Court was of the opinion that this was not enough to subject the entire institution to the scope of Title IX.
As part of its analysis, the Supreme Court engaged in a lengthy discussion of the legislative history of Title IX, noting that it was closely modeled after Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a far-reaching antidiscrimination statute. To this end, the Court interpreted Title VI’s legislative history to show that an institution’s receipt of student aid funds triggered coverage under Title VI. The Court added that because the language of Title VI is identical to that of Title IX, Congress intended for Title IX to be applied in the same manner as Title VI. Moreover, the Court observed that Title VI contained a list of programs covered by the law, including BEOGs.
Acknowledging that Congress had had the opportunity to invalidate parts of regulations that it deemed inconsistent with Title IX but chose not do so, the Supreme Court held that this was strong proof of congressional intent that BEOGs were considered “federal financial assistance.” Furthermore, the Court posited that because Congress reauthorized the statute governing BEOGs three times, it was well aware of the administrative interpretation that the grants were thought to trigger Title IX coverage.
In evaluating which educational program of the College received federal assistance, the Supreme Court looked to how the funds were disbursed. The Court explored the disbursement mechanism though the Regular Disbursement System, under which the Secretary of Education estimated the amount that an institution needs for grants and sends that amount directly to it; institutional officials are then free to identify eligible students. The Court commented that if college officials used this program, then it would have had “no doubt” that the program that received federal assistance was only the financial aid program. Yet the record reflected that the college used the Alternative Disbursement System, under which the grants were awarded directly to the students, bypassing the financial aid department. However, even though the BEOGs were disbursed through the Alternate Disbursement System and therefore did not go to the college for the financial aid department to disburse, the Court still decided that because the BEOGs expand the resources that the college could devote to financial aid, the financial aid program was subject to regulation under Title IX.
The Court made short work of the plaintiffs’ final challenge, namely that signing a form indicating that college officials would comply with Title IX as a condition for the receipt of federal financial assistance infringed on their First Amendment rights. Declaring that Congress is free to attach conditions to federal financial assistance that institutions are not obligated to accept, the Court affirmed there were no First Amendment infringements, because college officials could have refused to participate in the program, and the students could have taken the funds elsewhere.
Justice Powell’s concurrence remarked that while he agreed with the majority’s holding, he did so only reluctantly, because he believed that it represented an example of “overzealousness” on the part of the federal government. Powell wrote that it was undisputed that Grove City College had never discriminated against anyone on the basis of sex and that the ED demanded the Assurance of Compliance to be signed even in light of the lack of any claims of discrimination.
Justice Stevens’s partial concurrence maintained that the majority addressed an issue that was not in dispute, describing it as an advisory opinion, in finding that the college was not required to refrain from discrimination on the basis of sex in any program other than financial aid. Further, he was of the view that the record was inadequate to answer all of the questions at bar and that a factual inquiry was necessary to have resolved which programs actually benefited from federal financial assistance.
In dissent, Justice Brennan contended that the majority completely disregarded the remedial purposes of Title IX while ignoring congressional intent surrounding the statute. He argued that the majority mistakenly limited the scope of Title IX even though the federal funds were benefiting the entire college. This position was later essentially vindicated by congressional enactment of the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987, which stated that if any part of an institution receives federal aid, the institution as a whole must comply with Title IX.
See also Higher Education Act; Loans and Federal Aid
Villalobos, P. M. (1990). The Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987: Revitalization of Title IX. Marquette Sports Law Journal, 1, 149–169.
Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987, Pub. L. No. 100-259, 102 Stat. 28 (1988).
Grove City College v. Bell, 465 U.S. 555 (1984).
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. § 1681.