The education law known as Title IX has had a surprising fifty-year history. Enacted during a time when the rights of marginalized groups were expanding, its evolving legacy is one of increasing impact and steady resilience despite shifting cultural values. The two superpowers of Title IX are the simplicity of its mandate and the breadth of its scope.

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Key Takeaways

  • Title IX has teeth, and schools must demonstrate their compliance.
  • Challenges to Title IX have been mostly unsuccessful.
  • Gender equity remains controversial as its scope broadens.

Title IX of the 1972 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965 mandates gender equity at educational institutions receiving federal dollars. The spirit of the law is expressed in its preamble:

“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.”

The law and the regulations that enforce it affect every school that gets federal money, not just universities and colleges. Even private schools, if they receive any type of federal funding, must comply with Title IX. As a granting agency, the U.S. Department of Education is “required to enforce Title IX’s nondiscrimination mandate.”[i]

Universities Tend to Comply with Title IX

AHELP EXCLUSIVE: The Impact of Title IX - A Retrospective on Gender Equity in American Schools

Title IX prohibits many types of sex discrimination against students, including discrimination in recruitment, admissions, education programs, activities, housing, access to classes and schools, financial assistance, athletic scholarships, employment assistance, and health insurance. The two types of discrimination that seem to generate the most controversy are athletics and sexual misconduct.

Institutions participating in intercollegiate athletics, for example, must report annually that they are providing equal athletic opportunities for women. Schools must demonstrate that they comply in any one of the following three ways:

  1. the number of female athletes is proportional to the number of female students,
  2. the institution has a history and continuing practice of expanding participation opportunities, or
  3. the institution is fully and effectively accommodating the interests and abilities of the underrepresented sex. [ii]

One source of Title IX’s strength is the incentive it creates to comply voluntarily if only to avoid litigation and the loss of federal funds. But the real stroke of genius is that schools must “designate and authorize” a “Title IX Coordinator” and provide that person’s contact information to all applicants, students, employees, contractors, etc.[iii]

Any person can report sex discrimination, and The Title IX Coordinator receives those reports. This reporting mechanism for initiating enforcement places the onus of addressing these matters on the institution. In executing these responsibilities, the Title IX office typically oversees training programs, evaluates university programs and policies, and implements the grievance procedures to be followed when complaints are received. In other words, Title IX creates within each school a permanent apparatus to promote a culture of non-discrimination.

Challenges to Title IX Tend to Fail

Title IX’s strength can also be traced to two important Supreme Court cases. In 1984, the Grove City v. Bell decision limited the scope of the law by ruling that only the programs receiving the funds were subject to its mandates. This excused from compliance athletic programs that did not accept federal dollars.

However, Congress soon remedied the Grove City decision by enacting the 1987 Civil Rights Restoration Act, which explicitly placed all programs under Title IX if any federal funding flowed to the institution. Then, in the 1992 Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools decision, the Court unanimously held that schools could be sued for monetary damages, and not just injunctive relief if they acted with an intention to avoid Title IX compliance. [iv]

From the earliest debates in Congress back in the 1970s to the present day, gender equity in athletics has been a point of contention. [v] Not every American agrees that federal law ought to mandate equality for women’s sports. Nevertheless, most university athletic departments do in fact comply with gender equity requirements. More importantly, the law enjoys broad support by the public and both Republican and Democratic lawmakers.[vi]

Gender Equity Evolves with the Times

Recent years have seen controversy over what constitutes sexual misconduct and how it should be resolved. Recognized categories of sexual misconduct include “quid-pro-quo” harassment, sexual harassment by one student toward another, and sexual assault, which can be dating violence, domestic violence, stalking, retaliation, or complicity. When sexual misconduct is alleged, a formal legal process is triggered. The university’s Title IX obligations govern these situations.[vii]

AHELP EXCLUSIVE: The Impact of Title IX - A Retrospective on Gender Equity in American Schools

Currently, transgender issues are in the process of being addressed. The Biden administration has proposed a rule under Title IX that would prohibit schools from categorically banning “transgender students from participating on sports teams consistent with their gender identity just because of who they are.”[viii] The proposed rule seeks to protect students from being denied equal athletic opportunity while allowing schools to develop their own policies on participation.


A college campus is a community where everyone must somehow coexist in the same limited space. As a society, we oppose discrimination based on sex, but laws that enforce equality tend to breed controversy. While equality for women in education would seem to be easy to agree upon, our bitter history of civil rights struggles paints a different picture. People who care deeply about their schools can become resentful when legal requirements are implemented and enforced.

But despite the controversies over the years, Title IX has proven highly effective, in part because it implicates vital federal funding. As a result, compliance has been easier to obtain than unequivocal support for its evolving priorities, especially those involving sexual harassment and transgender issues.

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