What Is Title IX and Why Does It Matter?

What Is Title IX and Why Does It Matter?
portrait of Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
by Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
Published on October 18, 2021


Title IX is a civil rights law that prohibits schools or educational programs that receive federal assistance from discriminating against anyone on the basis of sex. The law was first enacted to stop male-dominated academic disciplines from excluding or discriminating against women.

Since the law first passed, however, Title IX rules have continued to evolve in their scope, meaning, and enforcement. Today, Title IX also protects students from sexual harassment and assault and prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

The past three presidential administrations have made drastic changes to Title IX. The Obama administration dramatically expanded the scope of Title IX protections. Trump-era rules sparked controversy and claims that the law shielded perpetrators more than it protected victims. And now, with President Biden in office, the Education Department has signaled it will roll back Trump-era interpretations of the law.

Uncertainty around Title IX rules and enforcement continues to fill news headlines. Take a recent case at the University of Montana. In January 2020, a law professor used gay slurs in class. School administrators informed students the slurs did not violate Title IX. However, due to a 2020 Supreme Court decision, the Biden administration has interpreted Title IX protections to prohibit such slurs.

Frequent changes to the law make it critical that students, faculty, and staff understand the history and rationale behind Title IX, which is among the most important federal civil rights protections impacting college campuses.

When Was Title IX Passed?

Title IX passed in 1972 as part of the Education Amendments Act.

The act declares, "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."

When the law passed, colleges and universities had to modify their practices to comply with these provisions. For example, colleges had six years to hire Title IX coordinators to make sure they were in compliance with the law.

Colleges also had to provide equal access to athletics. In 1972, when Title IX became law, women's sports received 2% of college athletic budgets. Many schools had no women's teams at all. The new law required schools to change these policies and rules.

Why Was Title IX Created?

Before passing Title IX, the federal government banned racial discrimination in higher education with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In 1972, Congress expanded that protection to include sex discrimination.

Federal funding supports colleges and universities. Students use financial aid to attend college, institutions receive federal research funds, and the government offers veteran education benefits that go to schools.

As a result, the federal government has an interest in regulating higher education. Preventing sex discrimination benefits students, faculty, staff, and society more broadly.

When Congress originally debated Title IX, Sen. Birch Bayh argued "The field of education is just one of many areas where differential treatment has been documented; but because education provides access to jobs and financial security, discrimination here is doubly destructive for women."

Title IX is one of many higher education laws passed by the federal government. The Higher Education Act of 1965 established federal student aid programs. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 banned disability discrimination in higher education. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, protects the privacy of college student education records.

What Does Title IX Prohibit?

The law says colleges cannot exclude, deny benefits from, or discriminate against people because of their sex.

That broad language covers everything from college admissions to athletics. For example, colleges cannot deny admission to applicants based on sex — with an exemption for single-sex institutions. Colleges cannot refuse to hire faculty because of their sex. They also cannot offer unequal educational resources that benefit one sex over another.

Critically, Title IX protects students from sexual harassment and assault on campus due to two Supreme Court decisions in the 1980s and 1990s. In 2011, the Obama administration issued guidance reinforcing these decisions.

President Obama's Education Department also interpreted Title IX to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, protecting individuals who identify as LGBTQ+. The Trump administration rolled back these guidelines in 2017. Based on the 2020 Supreme Court decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, however, President Biden's Education Department restored the Obama-era protections.

The law's prohibitions also extend to recruitment practices, departmental policies, housing, financial aid, and campus health services. If colleges treat students of one sex more favorably, they may be in violation of the law.

What Is Title IX in Sports?

Men dominated college sports before Title IX. For example, the University of Michigan had no formal women's sports when the new law passed in 1972. Six years later, Michigan had 10 women's teams, demonstrating the major impact the law had on collegiate athletics.

The law's concern is equal opportunity to participate in sports; it does not require a men's and women's team for every sport, nor does it require equal funding for men's and women's athletics.

The law does, however, prohibit colleges from denying athletic scholarships to women athletes or providing fewer medical services and facilities for women.

Title IX greatly expanded women's participation in collegiate athletics. However, compliance remains an issue. While the law requires equity in facilities, benefits, and tournaments, women's sports continue to lag behind men's sports in terms of support.

Title IX and Sexual Assault on Campus

Despite the Obama administration's 2011 guidance reinforcing Title IX's protections against sexual harassment and assault, sexual violence remains a major problem on college campuses. According to a study by the Association of American Universities (AAU), 13% of college students reported experiencing nonconsensual sexual contact in 2019..

That number was significantly higher for women, transgender, and nonbinary students. More than one in four undergraduate women experienced nonconsensual sexual contact while in college.

Sexual harassment and sexual violence on campus qualify as sex discrimination under Title IX. Harassment, sexual assault, and other forms of sexual misconduct all negatively affect a student's access to higher education.

The sexual misconduct protections in Title IX also apply to faculty and staff.

Victims of sexual misconduct can file a complaint with their school. Colleges must then investigate the incident and stop the harassment or take disciplinary measures against perpetrators.

For example, colleges can issue a no-contact order against perpetrators, offer safety escort services, or expel the perpetrator.

However, in recent years the federal government has changed the rules for investigating sexual assault on campus. Obama-era rules placed higher standards on colleges. Schools had to investigate Title IX complaints within 60 days. Victims who dropped out or transferred could still file a complaint. And schools could find respondents guilty if the evidence showed they were more likely guilty than not.

The Trump administration rolled back many of these provisions. Under the new rules, schools had no time limit to resolve Title IX complaints, and both the victim and perpetrator had to be currently affiliated with the school for the college to investigate. The new interpretation also set a higher burden of proof for finding an alleged perpetrator guilty.

Critics of the Trump-era changes feared the new rules would shield perpetrators — and dissuade victims from filing complaints. For example, the Trump rules subjected survivors to cross-examination at a live hearing, while the Obama rules empowered an investigator to interview survivors and report the findings to a panel.

Recently, the Biden administration started the process to rewrite the Title IX rules on sexual assault.

The Future of Title IX

In the nearly five decades since it became law, Title IX has continued to evolve. While the statute does not explicitly mention sexual harassment, for example, a series of court rulings starting in the late 1970s slowly expanded Title IX protections to include sexual harassment.

Similarly, in the 1970s the NCAA argued that Title IX did not apply to athletics, an interpretation that did not hold for long.

The past three presidential administrations have altered Title IX rules related to sexual harassment and assault. These changes have sparked a fierce debate over how to protect students from sexual violence while also offering due process for accused perpetrators.

In his first months in office, President Biden has taken steps to change Title IX rules — including expanding the law to cover sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination.

LGBTQ+ students face elevated risks of sexual violence. In the 2019 AAU survey, 23% of undergraduate transgender students reported nonconsensual sexual contact in college. By extending protections to transgender students, Title IX will continue to serve its original mission: to protect access to higher education for everyone.


Feature Image: Alex Wong / Staff / Getty Images News

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