Supreme Court’s Decision in Grove City College v. Bell

March 07, 1984 11 min read
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Justice Brennan, with whom Justice Marshall joins, concurring in part and dissenting in part.

The Court today concludes that Grove City College is “receiving federal financial assistance” within the meaning of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. 1681(a), because a number of its students receive federal education grants. As the Court persuasively demonstrates in part II of its opinion, that conclusion is dictated by “the need to accord [Title IX] a sweep as broad as its language"; by reference to the analogous statutory language and legislative history of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; by reliance on the unique postenactment history of Title IX; and by recognition of the strong congressional intent that there is no “substantive difference between direct institutional assistance and aid received by a school through its students. For these same reasons, however, I cannot join part III of the Court’s opinion, in which the Court interprets the language in Title IX that limits application of a statute to “any education program or activity” receiving federal monies. By conveniently ignoring these controlling indicia of congressional intent, the Court also ignores the primary purposes for which Congress enacted Title IX. The result--allowing Title IX coverage for the college’s financial-aid program, but rejecting institution-wide coverage even though federal monies benefit the entire college--may be superficially pleasing to those who are uncomfortable with federal intrusion into private educational institutions, but it has no relationship to the statutory scheme enacted by Congress.

I The Court has twice before had occasion to ascertain the precise scope of Title IX. See North Haven Board of Education v. Bell (1982); Cannnon v. University of Chicago (1979). In both cases, the Court emphasized the broad congressional purposes underlying enactment of the statute. In Cannon, while holding that Title IX confers a private cause of action on individual plaintiffs, we noted that the primary congressional purpose behind the statute was “to avoid the use of federal resources to support discriminatory practices,” and that this purpose “is generally served by the statutory procedure for the termination of federal financial support for institutions engaged in discriminatory practices.” In North Haven, while holding that employment discrimination is within the reach of Title IX, we expressed “no doubt that ‘if we are to give [Title IX] the scope that its origins dictate, we must accord it a sweep as broad as its language.”’ [

  • ] And although we acknowledged that an agency’s authority “both to promulgate regulations and to terminate funds is subject to the program-specific limitation of 901 and 902,” [
  • ], we explicitly refused to define “program” at that time [
  • ].

When reaching that question today, the Court completely disregards the broad remedial purposes of Title IX that consistently have controlled our prior interpretations of this civil-rights statute. Moreover, a careful examination of the statute’s legislative history, the accepted meaning of similar statutory language in Title VI, and the postenactment history of Title IX will demonstrate that the Court’s narrow definition of “program or activity” is directly contrary to congressional intent.

[Editor’s note: Justice Brennan goes on to offer a detailed analysis of the legislative and postenactment history of the statute.]


In conclusion, each of the factors relevant to the interpretation of the program-specificity requirements of Title IX, taken individually or collectively, demonstrates that the Court today limits the reach of Title IX in a way that was wholly unintended by Congress. The contemporaneous legislative history of Title IX, the relevant interpretation of similar language in Title VI, and the administrative and legislative interpretations of Title IX since the statute’s original enactment all lead to the same conclusion: that Title IX coverage for an institution of higher education is appropriate if federal monies are received by or benefit the entire institution.

II A proper application of Title IX to the circumstances of this case demonstrates beyond peradventure that the Court has unjustifiably limited the statute’s reach. Grove City College enrolls approximately 140 students who utilize Basic Educational Opportunity Grants (beog’s) to pay for their education at the college. Although the grant monies are paid directly to the students, the Court properly concludes that the use of these federal monies at the college means that the college “receives federal financial assistance” within the meaning of Title IX. The Court also correctly notes that a principal purpose underlying congressional enactment of the beog program is to provide funds that will benefit colleges and universities as a whole. It necessarily follows, in my view, that the entire undergraduate institution operated by Grove City College is subject to the antidiscrimination provisions included in Title IX.

A In determining the scope of Title IX coverage, the primary focus should be on the purposes meant to be served by the particular federal funds received by the institution. In this case, Congress has clearly indicated that beog monies are intended to benefit any college or university that enrolls students receiving such grants. As the Court repeatedly recognizes, "[t]he legislative history of the [Education Amendments of 1972] is replete with statements evincing Congress’ awareness that the student-assistance programs established by the amendments would significantly aid colleges and universities. In fact, one of the stated purposes of the student-aid provision was to ‘provid[e] assistance to institutions of higher education.”’ [

  • ]

In many respects, therefore, Congress views financial aid to students, and in particular beog’s, as the functional equivalent of general aid to institutions. Given this undeniable and clearly stated congressional purpose, it would seem to be self-evident that Congress intended colleges or universities enrolling students who receive beog’s to be covered, in their entirety, by the antidiscrimination provisions of Title IX. That statute’s primary purpose, after all, is to ensure that federal monies are not used to support discriminatory practices. [

  • ]

Under the Court’s holding, in contrast, Grove City College is prohibited from discriminating on the basis of sex in its own “financial-aid program,” but is free to discriminate in other “programs or activities” operated by the institution. Underlying this result is the unstated and unsupportable assumption that monies received through beog’s are meant only to be utilized by the college’s financial-aid program. But it is undisputed that beog monies, paid to the institution as tuition and fees and used in the general operating budget, are utilized to support most, and perhaps all, of the facilities and services that together comprise Grove City College.

The absurdity of the Court’s decision is further demonstrated by examining its practical effect. According to the Court, the “financial-aid program” at Grove City College may not discriminate on the basis of sex because it is covered by Title IX, but the college is not prohibited from discriminating in its admissions, its athletic programs, or even its various academic departments. The Court thus sanctions practices that Congress clearly could not have intended: for example, after today’s decision, Grove City College would be free to segregate male and female students in classes run by its mathematics department. This would be so even though the affected students are attending the college with the financial assistance provided by federal funds. If anything about Title IX were ever certain, it is that discriminatory practices like the one just described were meant to be prohibited by the statute.

B The Court, moreover, does not offer any defensible justification for its holding. First, the Court states that it has “no doubt” that beog’s administered through the Regular Disbursement System (rds) are received, not by the entire college, but by its financial-aid program. Thus, the Court reasons, beog’s administered through the Alternative Disbursement System (ads) must also be received only by the financial-aid program. The premise of this syllogism, however, simply begs the question presented; until today’s decision, there was considerable doubt concerning the reach of Title IX in a college or university administering beog’s through the rds. Indeed, the extent to which Title IX covers an educational institution receiving beog’s is the same regardless of the procedural mechanism chosen by the college to disburse the student aid. With this argument, therefore, the Court is simply restating the question presented by the case.

Second, the Court rejects the notion that the federal funds disbursed under the beog program are received by the entire institution because they effectively “free up” the college’s own resources for use by all programs or activities that are operated by Grove City College. But coverage of an entire institution that receives beog’s through its students is not dependent upon such a theory. Instead, Title IX coverage for the whole undergraduate institution at Grove City College is premised on the congressional intent that beog monies would provide aid for the college or university as a whole. Therefore, whatever merit the Court’s argument may have for federal monies that are intended solely to benefit a particular aspect of an educational institution, such a research grant designed to assist a specific laboratory or professor, the freeing-up theory is simply irrelevant when the federal financial assistance is meant to benefit the entire institution.

Third, the Court contradicts its earlier recognition that beog’s are not different from general aid to a college or university by claiming that “student financial-aid programs ... are sui generis.” [

  • ] Although this assertion serves to limit severely the effect of the Court’s holding, it is wholly unexplained, especially in light of the forceful evidence of congressional intent to the contrary. Indeed, it would be more accurate to say that financial aid for students is the prototypical method for funneling federal aid to institutions of higher education.

Finally, although not explicitly offered as a rationale, the Court’s holding might be explained by its willingness to defer to the government’s position as it has been represented to this Court. But until the government filed its briefs in this case, it had consistently argued that Title IX coverage for the entire undergraduate institution operated by Grove City College was authorized by the statute. [

  • ] The latest position adopted by the government, irrespective of the motivations that might underlie this recent change, is therefore entitled to little, if any, deference. [
  • ] The interpretation of statutes as important as Title IX should not be subjected so easily to shifts in policy by the executive branch.

III In sum, the program-specific language in Title IX was designed to ensure that the reach of the statute is dependent upon the scope of federal financial assistance provided to an institution. When that financial assistance is clearly intended to serve as federal aid for the entire institution, the institution as a whole should be covered by the statute’s prohibition on sex discrimination. Any other interpretation clearly disregards the intent of Congress and severely weakens the antidiscrimination provisions included in Title IX. I therefore cannot join in Part III of the Court’s opinion.

There is much to commmend the suggestion, made by Justice Stevens, that part III of the Court’s opinion is no more than an advisory opinion, unnecessary to the resolution of this case and unsupported by any factual findings made below. Because the Court has not heeded that suggestion, however, I feel compelled to express my view on the merits of the issue decided by the Court.

Because I believe that beog monies are intended by Congress to benefit institutions of higher education in their entirety, I find it unnecessary in his case to decide whether Title IX’s reach would be the same when more targeted federal aid is being received by an institution. For such cases, it may be appropriate to examine carefully not only the purposes but also the actual effects of the federal monies received.

Although Justice Stevens properly notes that there have been no findings of fact on this particular point, even the Court is forced to concede the obvious. (“It is true, of course, that substantial portions of the beog’s received by Grove City’s students ultimately find their way into the college’s general operating budget and are used to provide a variety of services to the students through whom the funds pass.”) The Court nonetheless ignores its own concession by claiming that there is “no persuasive evidence” that Congress intended to cover an entire institution of higher education in this situation. As I explain in part II, however, the evidence of congressional intent is quite persuasive, if not convincing.

A version of this article appeared in the March 07, 1984 edition of Education Week as Supreme Court’s Decision in Grove City College v. Bell

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