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Legal History on Federal Student Aid: A Review of Grove City College v Bell

465 U.S. 555 (1984)

Grove City College, a private, liberal arts institution, refused from its founding to accept federal financial aid on principle in order to preserve its institutional autonomy. When the Department of Education terminated federal funding to Grove City College students after the college refused to comply with a Title IX regulation, the college and several students filed suit.


Grove City College was a private, religious, liberal arts college in Northwestern Pennsylvania, enrolling roughly 2200 students at the time of this case. From its founding, Grove City College chose not to participate in government funding programs in order to avoid entanglement with the rules and regulations that accompany such programs and to maintain its institutional independence. However, the school enrolled a number of students who accepted Basic Educational Opportunity Grants (BOEGs), a program administered by the Department of Education. Determining that Grove City College was thus a recipient of federal financial aid and therefor subject to Title IX regulations, the DOE required the college to execute an Assurance of Compliance in 1976. When the college refused to comply, the DOE initiated proceedings to terminate BOEG grants to Grove City students. The college and several affected students responded by filing suit against the Secretary of Education.


Was Grove City College subject to Title IX regulations by virtue of enrolling students who financed their education with federal grants?


This case tested whether Grove City College qualified as a recipient of federal aid under Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 which states that “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” (§ 901(a)). This piece of legislation further directs that agencies granting funds to educational institutions generate regulations that ensure compliance with the discrimination prohibition (§ 902). In this particular case, the relevant regulations were those the Department of Education generated to ensure Title IX compliance among schools whose students received BOEG grants. Furthermore, the Act indicated funding to the particular program could be terminated in order to ensure compliance (§ 902).

Procedural History and Lower Court Rulings

The college and several student recipients of BOEG grants first brought this case in 1978 to the United States Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. They asked the court to reverse the Department of Education’s decision to terminate BOEG grants to students at the college, and to declare that the college was not required to submit an assurance of compliance. Although the court found that the college was a recipient of federal aid and thus subject to Title IX regulation, the court required the Department of Education to lift its termination of grants. Both parties appealed, and the case went to the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, where the district court ruling was partially overturned. The appellate court agreed with the lower court that the college qualified as a recipient of federal aid and was subject to Title IX regulation. In a departure from the lower court ruling, the appellate court affirmed the Department of Education’s rules requiring the submission of an assurance of compliance, and affirmed the right of the Department to terminate BOEG grants due to non-compliance. The college appealed the decision to the US Supreme Court where the case was decided in 1984 with a 6-3 majority.


The first question of this case was whether Grove City College qualified as a recipient of federal financial aid by virtue of enrolling students who were recipients of BOEG grants. The college contended that it was not a recipient, as defined by Title IX. After a review of relevant legislation and contemporaneous history, the Court found against the college on this point. The Court pointed to the structure of the Educational Amendments Act of 1972 as an important indicator of legislative intent—the BOEG program and Title IX were both constituted by this single piece of legislation, and should be thought of in connection with one another. In his majority opinion, Justice White argued that it made most sense that all financial aid provisions included in the act were intended to trigger Title IX coverage. The Court also quoted contemporaneous comments by legislators indicating intent that BOEG was tied to Title IX. Another line of reasoning the Court followed involved the statutory language itself. The Court pointed out that the College’s case rested on a perceived distinction between direct and indirect federal aid, but that Section 901(a) gave no indication that the manner of receipt was relevant, only the substantial condition of having received federal funding. The Court cited precedent to confirm this reading of the statute as well (Bob Jones University v. Johnson, 1974). The Court further characterized the statutory language as broadly inclusive of all forms of federal aid. On the basis of these arguments, the Court found that Grove City College qualified as a recipient of federal financial aid by virtue of enrolling student recipients of BOEG grants.

Having established that Grove City College was in fact a recipient, the next question the Court advanced was the extent of programs subject to Title IX regulation. The language in Title IX indicates that it regulates “any education program or activity” (§ 901) receiving federal aid—the language does not refer to whole institutions. The College therefore argued that the BOEG program itself was that program identified in the legislation that should be regulated. Whereas the government had claimed when the case first went to court that the whole college should be subject to regulation, their position changed—by the time the case came to the Supreme Court, the government was claiming that the College’s financial aid program was the proper target to be regulated. The Court agreed with the government’s position on the basis of the term “program” in the statutory language.

Since Grove City College was in fact a recipient, and thus subject to Title IX and its requirements, the Court concluded that the Department of Education was within its rights to terminate BOEG grants to Grove City students until the college submitted an assurance of compliance report.


Although the three courts to hear this case differed on secondary issues, they agreed on the central issue, affirming that Grove City College was a recipient of federal funding and thus subject to Title IX regulation. Delivered by Justice White, the ruling opinion won the full support of six justices with the other three agreeing with key sections, but dissenting on minor points.


Yes. The Court held that Title IX applied even to private schools that refused direct federal funding, but where students received federally funded scholarships. The Court also held that the government could require an “assurance of compliance” even though Grove City had not been shown to have discriminated, but that compliance would only have to be demonstrated for the financial aid office, not the institution as a whole.

Part III of the ruling opinion was overturned statutorily with the passage of the Civil Rights Restoration Act, also known as the Grove City bill (1988), which required compliance in all areas from recipients of federal funding, not just in the program area where the funds were received.


The college challenged the court of appeals ruling, inter alia, on first amendment grounds. The Court dispensed with this challenge briefly, affirming the right of the federal government to attach reasonable conditions to federal financial aid, and affirming the right of the college to participate or not participate in the federal programs. The voluntary nature of the federal programs relieved them of any vulnerability to attacks on 1st Amendment grounds.



Bob Jones University v. Johnson, 396 F. Supp. 597, 601-604 (SC 1974)

Education Amendments of 1972, Public Law No. 92‑318, 86 Stat. 235

Grove City College v Bell, 687 F.2d 684 (3rd Cir. 1982)

Grove City College v Bell, 465 U.S. 555 (1984)

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