Grove City College v. Bell

In Grove City College v. Bell (1984), the U.S. Supreme Court held that Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 applies to all private colleges whose students receive federal assistance, even if institutions do not directly receive such aid from the federal government. As such, the Court upheld the ruling of Third Circuit that decided that the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) could terminate federally sponsored Basic Educational Opportunity Grants (BEOG) that students received at the college if officials did not sign a form known as an “assurance of compliance” with Title IX.

Facts of the Case

Grove City College is one of the most distinctive institutions of higher education in the United States. Since its founding in 1876 as a coeducational college, the college has prided itself on operation without the assistance of state or federal funds. This choice was based on a passionate desire to preserve full institutional control over the liberal arts college. The institution’s intensely independent streak led to the litigation in Grove City.

When Charles MacKenzie, president of Grove City College, received the Title IX compliance request from the federal government, he responded that the institution was not discriminating against women insofar as it had been coeducational throughout its existence. Rather, he asserted that the college intended to remain completely independent of government intervention and control. To this end, MacKenzie viewed agreeing to sign the form as ensnaring the college in a federal bureaucracy in which it had no interest in participating. Further, officials at the college were worried that agreeing to the federal requirements would have led their academic community away from its religious focus to a more secular focus.

Government officials determined that since administrators at Grove City College failed to comply with Title IX, it was necessary to begin administrative procedure to stop students from receiving BEOGs. An administrative judge found that HEW had a sufficient basis on which to stop awarding BEOGs to students at the College. The college and a number of students filed suit in a federal trial court in Pennsylvania that indicated that the HEW could not terminate the BEOGs. However, the Third Circuit reversed in favor of HEW.

The Court’s Ruling

On further review, the Supreme Court affirmed the order of the Third Circuit but limited the extension of Title IX to the financial assistance program of the college rather than across-campus. For this reason, Justices Brennan and Marshall dissented from Justice White’s majority opinion. The dissenters observed that the protection of Title IX should have extended institutionwide. Yet the Court was of the opinion that receiving federal financial assistance required formal acceptance of Title IX. Further, the Court pointed out that this requirement did not violate the First Amendment rights of the College or its students, because the receipt of these funds was voluntary and officials could have ended their involvement in the program at any time.

After the Supreme Court rendered its judgment in Grove City, officials took the exit option that the Court had identified. Officials at the College opted to forgo federal funds by not signing the Title IX compliance form and by developing private sources of financial aid for students to replace the lost money. In the interim, the college sought to further bolster its independence from federal governmental support in any form by not admitting students who planned to use federal funds and by electing not to participate in federal loan programs. At the same time, the college does promote the use of state grants and scholarships as long as they are not backed up by federal funds.

Congress and President Reagan essentially overruled Grove City with the enactment of the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1988. Pursuant to this statute, in an attempt to ensure compliance with Title IX and selected other federal laws, such as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, if one part of an institution receives federal aid, then the entire enterprise must comply with federal law.

Aaron Cooley

See also Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 504; Title IX and Athletics; U.S. Department of Education

Further Readings

  • Edwards, L. (2000). Freedom’s college: The history of Grove City College. Washington, DC: Regnery. 
  • Ware, S. (2006). Title IX: A brief history with documents. New York: Bedford/St.Martin’s. 

Legal Citations

  • Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1988, 20 U.S.C. § 1687. 
  • Grove City College v. Bell, 465 U.S. 555 (1984). 
  • Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 504, 29 U.S.C. § 794(a). 
  • Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. § 1681.