Evaluating the Varied Impacts of Title IX

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Forty-four years ago, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 became law, mandating the equal treatment of all students, regardless of gender, in education programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance. 

No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. 

20 U.S.C. §1681.

Since its passage, the effects of Title IX — a law traditionally known for its frequent application to college sports programs — have been far-reaching.

Ellen Staurowsky, EdD, professor in the Department of Sport Management at Drexel University, agrees. “Title IX has had a profound impact on college sports,” she says. “From 1972 to now, there has been a dramatic growth in opportunities for female athletes.”

Ellen Staurowsky
Ellen Staurowsky

A report by the National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education, Title IX and Athletics, reinforces Staurowsky’s view. “At the college level, [before] Title IX, only 29,977 women participated in athletics compared with 166,728 in 2006, a 456 percent increase,” the report reads.

Staurowsky estimates that currently, there are approximately 200,000 female NCAA athletes. This increased participation matters for myriad reasons: Multiple studies cite significant economic, social, health, and academic benefits tied to participation in and access to school sports programs and activities.

Notably, however, because Title IX’s language doesn’t specifically mention sports, its mandates have extended beyond athletics to focus on sexual assault.

An Association of American Universities (AAU) survey involving more than 150,000 students at 27 universities found that nearly one in four college students reported experiencing some form of unwanted sexual contact. In recent years, similar statistics and disturbing real-world accounts have spotlighted the problem of campus sexual assault and misconduct.

In 2014, as part of the White House’s “It’s on Us” campaign to end sexual assault on college campuses, President Barack Obama described sexual assault as “an affront to our basic decency and humanity,” and the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault issued guidelines to colleges to combat rape. In response to similar federal guidelines and incidents on campuses, some colleges and universities have established Title IX offices focused on education, training, and compliance around sexual assault, as well as on the investigation and enforcement of sexual misconduct claims.

Title IX explicitly requires every educational institution to designate “at least one employee to serve as its Title IX compliance coordinator.” Title IX officers, as they are sometimes called, coordinate Title IX investigations and complaints and implement Title IX guidance and regulations. Despite the presence of these coordinators on many campuses — an increasing number of whom have law degrees — more than 100 colleges and universities are currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) for violations of Title IX.

Richard Baker, PhD, JD — assistant vice chancellor, vice president, and Title IX coordinator at the University of Houston’s main campus — says that adherence to Title IX is complicated by a lack of concrete information.

Richard Baker
Richard Baker

“Most institutions of higher education are trying to comply in good faith with federal guidance. The uncertainty is that there is no proven institutional model of compliance,” he says. “We are all implementing programs based on our best effort to deliver what is expected of us, hoping that our compliance strategies will not only pass legal muster, but also the scrutiny of a closely watching public.”

Under Title IX, a person harmed by an educational institution’s failure to comply with the law may sue the school. The New York Times reports that costs associated with Title IX litigation can range from the thousands to millions of dollars, depending upon the circumstances of the case. Title IX also provides that the federal government may withhold federal funding to schools that are not in compliance. However, since Title IX was passed, no school has lost federal funds due to a violation of the statute. Instead, federal funding has reportedly been made conditional on institutions remedying identified problems through resolution agreements with the OCR.

Title IX Time Line

1972: Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 is enacted, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex in any educational program or activity receiving federal funds. Colleges are given three years to comply with new regulations.

1976: The NCAA unsuccessfully files a lawsuit challenging the legality of Title IX athletic regulations.

1979: The U.S. Supreme Court rules in Cannon v. University of Chicago that individuals have the right to sue under Title IX.

1984: The Supreme Court rules in Grove City v. Bell that Title IX applies only to specific programs that receive federal funds, eliminating Title IX coverage of most athletic programs and other areas not directly receiving federal funds.

1988: The Civil Rights Restoration Act is passed over President Ronald Reagan’s veto, reversing Grove City and restoring Title IX coverage to all programs and activities at public education institutions.

1992: The Supreme Court rules unanimously in Franklin v. Gwinnett County Schools that students who experience sexual harassment in school may be awarded monetary damages. The NCAA publishes a “Gender-Equity Study” of its member institutions, detailing widespread sex discrimination in college athletics programs.

1994: The Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act (EADA) is passed, requiring federally funded, coeducational institutions of higher education to annually disclose information regarding the gender breakdown of their intercollegiate athletic programs.

2001: A case at the University of Colorado at Boulder involving the alleged rape of two female students by members of the football team — after which the university paid $2.5 million in damages to the women, in 2007 — led to what some say was an increased focus on sexual assault cases under Title IX.

2005: The Supreme Court rules in Jackson v. Birmingham Board of Education that schools are prohibited under Title IX from retaliating against those who protest sex discrimination.

2006: The U.S. Department of Education issues changes to the 1995 Title IX regulations, allowing schools to offer single-sex programs without adequate safeguards against stereotyping and other forms of sex discrimination.

2011: In a lawsuit filed in 2003 by three female students who were cut from the varsity wrestling team at the University of California (UC), Davis, a federal court finds that the university failed to provide sufficient athletic opportunities for women. UC Davis settles, paying more than $1.3 million to cover the women’s attorneys’ fees.

2014: The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights announces that 55 colleges and universities are under investigation for mishandling sexual assault and harassment cases.

2016: The U.S. Department of Justice sends a letter to North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) saying the state’s new “bathroom law,” directed at transgender individuals, is illegal and should be repealed; it also threatens to withhold funding from the University of North Carolina system should it comply with the legislation. McCrory sues the department, which sues McCrory in response.

Sources: Women’s Sports Foundation, National Coalition for Women & Girls in Education

As the Title IX legal landscape evolves, colleges and universities will have to adapt to new guidelines and regulations. In May, the Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice issued joint guidance to public schools across the country — including colleges and universities — regarding the civil rights of transgender students. As of this writing, 11 states are suing the federal government over the directives contained in the guidelines regarding transgender students’ use of traditional, gender-specific restrooms.

Going forward, some gender equity advocates look to increase Title IX enforcement around STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) initiatives in schools and improve work around gender equity in athletics. Staurowsky, who co-authored a recent Women’s Sports Foundation study on gender bias, points out estimated disparities in awarding athletic scholarships to female athletes “of as much as $190 million a year.” She also expresses concerns “that college sport workplaces are either overtly or covertly hostile to coaches of women’s teams [who advocate] for Title IX and gender equity.”

Additionally, a 2015 report from the National Women’s Law Center indicates that minority females are still grossly underrepresented in school sports programs.

As the average cost of college tuition at public colleges and universities rises, current and anticipated expenditures associated with Title IX compliance and noncompliance have called into question another facet of the debate. Do budgetary impacts associated with Title IX constrain education programs and institutions?

Cheryl Cooky, PhD, president of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport and associate professor of American studies at Purdue University, sees “costs of big-time athletics programs and cuts in federal and state funding for higher education” as major factors driving rising tuition costs.

Cheryl Cooky
Cheryl Cooky

“Universities are increasingly reliant on tuition dollars to make up government funding gaps, and most big-time athletics programs lose money for schools and operate in the red,” says Cooky.

Baker says he recognizes “that almost every institution of higher education has increased [its] investment in Title IX compliance over the last few years.” However, he also attributes financial losses tied to lawsuits and their negative effects on the community to Title IX misconduct.

“Think about the impact beyond dollars that an incident would have on recruitment, retention, and other markers of excellence needed by institutions to be competitive,” Baker says. “In the grand scheme of [things], Title IX investments are de minimis in comparison to the losses that could occur without them.”●

Kelley R. Taylor is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.