How a Surprising Supreme Court Case Bolstered Conservative Education

Feb. 28, 2024, marks the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Grove City College v. Bell (1984). The case pitted a small conservative Christian college against the Reagan Administration’s Department of Education (ED), with the two sides debating whether Title IX’s requirement to sign an Assurance of Compliance form was needed to receive federal funding for higher education. That form assured a policy of non-discrimination at the signing institution, a prerequisite that the 1972 legislation required in order to receive federal money for educational purposes.

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The Supreme Court upheld the legality of Title IX, but also limited its enforcement to only areas that received federal funding, in this case the receipt of federal student grants. This meant that even though Grove City would have to sign the form, federal oversight of educational equity on its campus would only be limited to student grants, not any program that benefited from money being offset by that federal money nor loans as they were considered “contracts of guaranty,” unable to be terminated under Title IX. That’s why a bipartisan coalition of politicians quickly moved to overturn this decision with legislation to ensure the broad enforcement of civil rights statutes and legislation in the name of equality and equity.

But the origins and outcome of the case altered the field of higher education in the United States as it bolstered the importance of private educational funding as a political priority for conservatives. Indeed, the court case itself played a central role in elevating the importance of a Christian education for conservatives worried about colleges and universities being too secular and liberal.

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Grove City was a private institution founded in 1876 with a mission to offer “students an education that’s rich in academic excellence” and “grounded in spiritual faith.” Grove City had a long history of avoiding federal oversight of education. In the 1920s, for example, the college opposed a referendum by the American Council of Education to create a federal Department of Education cabinet post, federal aid to education, and federal determination of standards and inspection of educational institutions. Grove City College students, however, received federal student loans. With Title IX’s passage in 1972, complications arose.

On four occasions between 1976 and 1977, Grove City College refused to sign an Assurance of Compliance form needed for students to receive Basic Educational Opportunity Grants (BEOGs) and Guaranteed Student Loans (GSLs). It contended that students received federal aid, not the college. The Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW, later ED), argued that the college was the ultimate beneficiary of the federal funds and needed to sign the compliance form for students to receive those funds as of 1977.

College administrators saw the form as a way for government intrusion to regulate the college and upset what Charles MacKenzie, the president of Grove City College, saw as “quality education at the lowest cost possible in a strong Christian atmosphere.” According to him, the college supported Title IX in principle, but opposed the increased regulatory measures and costs that came with government involvement. In 1974 it had voluntarily initiated a policy to allow co-ed dining and admitted an additional 140 women students to more closely equalize its ratio of men and women.

Four years after a spring 1978 HEW administrative hearing in Philadelphia, the case went to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which ruled that the college was a recipient of federal aid and needed to sign the compliance form. Undeterred, Grove City appealed to the Supreme Court.

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By the time the court heard the case in 1983, Ronald Reagan had taken office and the Department of Justice’s argument had changed. Whereas under the Carter Administration HEW had argued the whole institution would be covered, the Reagan Administration now narrowed the scope of Title IX enforcement. This latter argument, Margaret Kohn of the National Women’s Law Center attested, would leave women with “a scattershot of rights, a piece of Swiss cheese.” Such limited scope reflected the administration’s commitment to deregulation and reducing the authority of an overbearing federal bureaucracy. But it also allowed Reagan’s Administration to extend an olive branch to the antifeminist New Right, who were growing frustrated with lack of attention to “family values” issues that ranged from school prayer to limits on abortion access.

On Feb. 28, 1984, the Supreme Court announced its four-part ruling that Grove City College was a recipient of financial aid since its students received federal aid. It also ruled Title IX was program-specific, meaning it applied only to areas that received that aid, in this case, Grove City College’s financial aid office. Furthermore, refusing to submit the compliance form warranted ED’s termination of funds to the student financial aid program.

The court also determined the students’ First Amendment right of association was not violated by forcing the college to comply with the non-discrimination provision of Title IX. Students could take their federal money and attend other institutions that agreed to sign Title IX compliance forms.

Conservatives were quick to use the decision as justification for pulling back what they saw as overbearing federal regulations. When asked if the decision could apply to other civil rights statutes such as protections for people with disabilities and affirmative action, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division William Bradford Reynolds said the ruling “certainly points that direction.” In his view, it could actually serve as a stepping stone to undo affirmative action programs that the he called “morally wrong.”

And so, it seemed the Reagan Administration was prepared to use the ruling—which aimed to enforce Title IX—to actually limit the reach of federal anti-discriminatory law aimed to protect the rights of minorities, the disabled, women, and the elderly.

But moderate Republicans joined Democrats to craft legislation that fixed similar wording found in prohibitions against discrimination based on race, age, and disability in the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987, known popularly as the Grove City Bill.

Unsurprisingly, Ronald Reagan vetoed the legislation (becoming the first president since Andrew Johnson to veto a piece of civil rights legislation), but Congress overrode his veto by a vote of 73-24 in the Senate, and the House passed it with a vote of 292-133. This legislation was a win for women, those with disabilities, minorities, and victims of age discrimination.

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And yet, conservatives learned a lesson in the aftermath: the importance of bankrolling private educational institutions to teach conservative values to a younger generation outside any purse-string interference with federal aid.

Grove City College had a long commitment to crafting a conservative intellectual elite and campus grassroots activism. When it challenged federal authority in the form of Title IX regulations enforcing gender equity, the college galvanized conservatives and attracted donations. After the case, it eschewed any type of federal funding and relied even more on private donations for institutional scholarships, need-based financial aid, and general upkeep. Students can receive private loans from banks as well.

In the wake of the court case the Grove City College model has multiplied with seminaries and other colleges and universities like Hillsdale College abstaining from federal aid and loans. This ruling thus fueled a new activist approach at these institutions that pushed them beyond federal oversight and gave them a role in the broader conservative ecosystem and culture war. Hillsdale itself has developed its own 1776 curriculum for K-12 students to increase its conservative reach. And consequently, Republican governors like Ron DeSantis, Greg Abbott, and Glenn Youngkin have signed bills to teach “patriotic education,” and establish hotlines to surveil teachers accused of teaching Critical Race Theory.

Four decades ago, conservatives and the Reagan Administration position were in the minority and faced backlash for Grove City College v. Bell (1984). But they used this marginalization to galvanize the political and financial support needed to elevate their cause, and their success offers lessons for educational activists across the political spectrum today as they battle curricular wars in the 21st century.

Devan Lindey is a Limited Term Lecturer at Purdue University and Adjunct Lecturer at IUPUI specializing in political and constitutional history.

Made by History takes readers beyond the headlines with articles written and edited by professional historians. Learn more about Made by History at TIME here. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.

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