The Controversial Reason Some Religious Colleges Forgo Federal Funding

In the storm over how much money the federal government spends on student aid, and the spiraling amount of federal loan debt graduates face, Hillsdale College is an oasis.

The Hechinger Report


That’s because the Michigan school, founded by Baptists, doesn’t let its students take any of that government aid, which comes with strings attached—among other things, requiring that institutions follow federal regulations governing how to respond to sexual assault and banning discrimination based on sexual orientation.

It’s “a matter of principle,” David Whalen, Hillsdale’s provost, said of the college’s refusal to participate in federal financial-aid programs, which fall under what is known as Title IV of the laws that govern higher education. “The regulatory and bureaucratic intrusion that Title IV brings with it gets deeper and deeper with every passing year,” Whalen said. “As everyone knows, where there is money there is control.”

Widening Obama-administration protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people now appear to be further deepening concerns about government control at colleges and universities affiliated with religious denominations.

A growing number have been granted, or are seeking, exemptions from the U.S. Department of Education from provisions under Title IX of the laws governing higher education, which protects students from discrimination in housing, athletics, and access to facilities on the basis of such things as gender, sexual orientation, sex or pregnancy outside marriage, or having an abortion.

A handful refuse to accept federal funding outright, including federal financial aid for their students, which falls under what is known as Title IV.

Thirty-eight religiously affiliated institutions have received exemptions from Title IX, according to a list released by the Education Department under pressure from Democrats in Congress after the gay-rights organization the Human Rights Campaign used public-records laws to help expose the practice. At least 46 others have asked for exemptions, and several of those requests are under consideration. Colleges and universities can get exemptions if they can show they are controlled by religious organizations with whose beliefs Title IX requirements conflict.

These colleges and universities “take taxpayer dollars and seek to opt out from protecting LGBT students and women from discrimination,” said Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington and one of the lawmakers who demanded that the list be made public.

This process of seeking exemptions has accelerated since the Obama administration asserted in 2014 that transgender and “gender-nonconforming” students were protected from discrimination under Title IX, according to the Human Rights Campaign.  After that happened, the number of requests for exemptions rose from one in 2013 to 43 last year.

Hillsdale College, which does not participate in federal financial-aid rules and is therefore not subject to anti-discrimination regulations (Courtesy of Hillsdale College)

As for the schools that don’t participate in federal financial-aid programs, Hillsdale brought new attention to the previously little-noticed practice after it and some other colleges and universities complained they were left out of the federal College Scorecard, released last year, which provides prospective students with information about graduation rates and other measures that they can use to compare schools. That’s because the only students tracked directly by the government are the ones who participate in federal financial-aid programs, putting colleges that forgo the programs at a disadvantage.

In a separate reminder of the link between accepting federal money and following anti-discrimination regulations, the Obama administration threatened to withdraw that aid from public K-12 schools and colleges and universities in states that ban people from using bathrooms corresponding to their preferred gender identity.

“Once you agree to accept federal funds for anything, you have to comply with all federal laws,” said Donald Heller, the provost at the University of San Francisco, whose research focuses on educational economics, public policy, and finance, and who has testified to Congress about college access and financial aid.

Some colleges and universities preemptively decline it.

Among the other schools that don’t participate in Title IV financial-aid programs are Grove City College in Pennsylvania; Christendom College in Virginia; Pensacola Christian College in Florida; Patrick Henry College in Virginia; and tiny Wyoming Catholic College and Gutenberg College in Oregon, which have 150 and 22 students, respectively. At least one Orthodox Jewish institution, Yeshiva Toras Chaim Talmudic Seminary of Denver, also opts out of Title IV, according to documents provided in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by The Hechinger Report.

The Princeton Review ranks Grove City as among the least LGBT-friendly colleges in the United States. The New Republic reports that students at Patrick Henry complain administrators there mishandled cases of rape.

By not accepting federal money, these colleges don’t have to comply with federal regulations requiring that they investigate all accusations of sexual abuse; the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act, which sets standards for disciplinary proceedings in such cases; or the Jeanne Clery Act, which requires colleges to collect and share information about any crimes committed on their campuses. “Because they don’t participate in the federal financial aid programs,” said Heller, “they don’t have to report data to the federal government like every other institution does.”

That also includes a breakdown of their students by race or income. “We pay no attention to that at all,” said Whalen. “From its founding, [Hillsdale] admitted students of all races and both sexes, as long as they were willing to do the work necessary to obtain the degree. We consider it a violation of our very founding charter to start collecting data about ethnicity.”   

It’s not a matter of discrimination, said Brett McCracken, associate director of presidential communications at Biola University in California, which requested a religious exemption from Title IX but was turned down because its request did not identify a specific religious organization that controls the institution.

“We want to offer the choice to Christian students who want to go to school in a place that believes the traditional things that the Bible and Christian churches have believed for thousands of years about marriage and sexuality, among many other things,” McCracken said. “We want to be able to do our form of religious education in a unique way and we want to hold true to our convictions, and when you get entangled with the government in this kind of relationship it can become messy.”

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Grove City College reports demographic and some other information to the government on a voluntary basis, said its president, Paul McNulty. He said that—even though it doesn’t have to—the college also tries to adhere to the principles of Title IX to serve male and female students equally. “I think a lot of other colleges wish they were in Grove City’s position, because they worry that [government] requirements are going to fundamentally change the direction of the institution,” said McNulty.

“The issue has never been about discrimination,” he said. “We value our independence. We value the fact that we do not have to be subject to the evolving policy initiatives and prerogatives that come along from one administration to the next, and we don’t have to then shoulder the burden of the administration costs associated with those policy initiatives and requirements.”

A bill in California would require religious colleges and universities in the state to disclose to prospective students if they have received exemptions from anti-discrimination rules. A version of the measure has passed the Senate and is pending in the state Assembly. The sponsor, state Senator Ricardo Lara, originally sought to make it easier for gay and transgender students to sue those institutions, saying at a public hearing that the federal exemptions give the schools “a license to discriminate.”

Grove City College played an unintended role in helping to establish the link between taking federal funding and complying with federal rules. It won a 1984 case challenging this notion, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that participating in federal financial-aid programs required only that the financial-aid office, and not the whole school, follow federal civil-rights regulations.

Grove City College, which sued the federal government for linking acceptance of federal financial aid to anti-discrimination rules (Courtesy of Grove City College)

Congress responded by passing the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987—the Grove City Bill, as it was known at the time—specifying that all areas of an institution must comply with civil-rights rules if any part of it takes federal funding. As a result, Grove City College withdrew from the federal Pell Grant program and established a “Student Freedom Fund.”

“The case has really been a key part of our history and has come to represent, I think it’s fair to say, part of our brand,” said McNulty.

That brand is one of independence from entanglement with the government, and it has helped fundraising efforts, said McNulty, who said the school makes up for the lack of access to Pell Grants and federal loans by offering scholarships and access to private loans.

Grove City costs $26,806 a year, including tuition, housing, books, and supplies, according to College Navigator, another federal website. Fifty-four percent of students received grants and private scholarship aid in the academic year just ended, averaging $5,962 each; 45 percent took out private loans averaging $10,626 per student.

“It becomes kind of a badge of honor that they are independent from the system by which everybody else operates,” said Peter Wood, the president of the National Association of Scholars, a conservative advocacy group, and the former provost of King’s College in New York City, which only started taking Title IV funding in 2008.

But Wood said the pool of places that don’t take Title IV is very small for a reason: Most colleges can’t afford it. “No matter how mad a college president or a board of trustees may get at the federal government … they don’t have the option of saying ‘No, thank you’ to Title IV funds,” he said. “If they say, ‘No, thank you,’ then most likely the outcome would be bankruptcy within a year or two.”

That’s why colleges that don’t participate in Title IV are often outspoken about it in their fundraising, Wood said. They also make some other sacrifices.

“If you talk to some faculty they would definitely say there is a price to be paid for independence,” said McNulty. “There is research grant money that our faculty would love to be able to get.” And when Grove City students study at other institutions through exchange programs, he said, administrators do “some careful analysis” to make sure those students are not receiving federal assistance.


This post appears courtesy of The Hechinger Report.

Teaching Traumatized Kids

When Kelsey Sisavath enrolled as a freshman at Lincoln Alternative High School in Walla Walla, Washington, in the fall of 2012, her mother was struggling with drug addiction. Kelsey herself was using meth. The multiple traumas in her life included a sexual assault by a stranger at age 12. She was angry, depressed, and suicidal. Her traumatized brain had little room to focus on school.

Today, much has changed in Kelsey’s life. She graduated from Lincoln this spring with a 4.0 GPA while also taking classes at a community college. She is articulate, confident, and happy. Kelsey believes Lincoln changed her life.

A deeper understanding of Kelsey’s journey could offer answers to critical questions about how to help millions of traumatized children—particularly those growing up in poverty—succeed in school and beyond.

Neuroscience tells us that the brains of kids regularly facing significant trauma or toxic stress are wired for survival and likely to erupt at the smallest provocation. A major study of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) by the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente found that the higher a young person’s ACEs score, the greater the risk in adulthood of chronic disease, mental illness, and premature death. These children also have a far greater future likelihood of either inflicting or being the victim of violence.

Kelsey Sisavath (KPJR Films)

Now two decades old and widely validated by other studies, the ACEs test measures experiences such as abuse, neglect, and the prevalence of mental illness, drug addiction, and violence in a child’s home life. Those taking the test get one point for each type of trauma experienced on the 10-question survey. Research shows that children with a score of four have a 1200 percent greater chance of committing suicide and are seven times more likely to become alcoholics. In one class at Lincoln, where most kids come from troubled home environments, 13 out of 17 students who took the test had scores of at least five. Four kids had a score of eight.

Children with high ACEs scores are constantly on edge from unstable home environments that can place their brains and bodies in a state of high alert. At school, even a small reprimand from a teacher or perceived insult from a fellow student can trigger explosions of rage, expletives, and other inappropriate behavior.  

Students struggling with this toxic stress are often ill-suited to learn in a traditional educational environment. “Teachers like to tell students that if they work hard they will succeed—that it is in their control to pay attention, do their homework, and perform well in class. But those assumptions don’t work for children growing up in high-stress environments, such as those living in poverty,” said Jim Sporleder, the former principal of Lincoln, one of the first high schools in the country to embrace so-called “trauma-informed” education practices and the subject of the documentary Paper Tigers.

At Lincoln, the teachers and staff follow a few deceptively simple rules: Don’t take anything the student says personally and don’t mirror their behavior with an outburst of your own. The teachers give students time to calm down, often in the principal’s office or a special “quiet room.” Later, they inquire about what might be bothering them and ask if they want to talk about it.

Such seemingly straightforward techniques are actually based on hard science. In contrast to the fight-or-flight response triggered by perceived threats, seemingly minor acts of kindness, such as a few caring words from a teacher or a quick hug, can activate a cascade of Oxytocin, sometimes called the “love hormone.” In highly traumatized kids, such simple acts can have an outsized impact.

Kelsey says she was “shocked” when, after precipitating a violent fight with another girl during her freshman year, she wasn’t immediately arrested and kicked out of school. Instead, she went to the principal’s office to cool off. “I was given a bottle of water, a gentle pat on the back and time to reflect on my behavior,” recalled Kelsey. “Even the school cop talked to me calmly and helped me discuss what I had done.”

There were consequences: Kelsey was suspended for three days and charged with assault.  But she never got into a fight again. “I saw that there were people in the building who cared about me and realized I could have gone to any of them to resolve the issue without a fight,” she said.

Sporleder’s approach was quickly embraced by Lincoln administrators and teachers, many of whom were already informally using similar practices. Primarily by reallocating existing resources, Sporleder was able to reinforce their efforts through regular training by outside experts and staff meetings designed to reduce caregiver stress and refine strategies for struggling students. Many Lincoln students, for instance, hadn’t seen a doctor since birth. In response, the teachers and administration launched an on-campus clinic to provide free counseling and basic health care. Funding for the clinic was largely provided by the city’s main hospital, Providence St. Mary Medical Center, which saw it as way to ultimately keep down costs if fewer students went to the emergency room for their primary care.

In the years immediately following Lincoln’s adoption of trauma-informed practices, the school saw a fivefold increase in graduation rates, a threefold increase in students headed to college, 75 percent fewer fights, and 90 percent fewer suspensions.

Many educators question whether success stories like Lincoln, which has just over 200 students, can be translated to large urban schools where teachers and staff have little time to provide individualized support to students.

This question was very much on the mind of Dr. Pamela Cantor when she started the New York-based nonprofit Turnaround for Children. The organization was founded in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks after New York City commissioned a study to assess the level of trauma in its public-school students. Surprisingly, the study found that while 68 percent of the children observed had experienced trauma sufficient to impair their school performance, the culprit wasn’t the terrorist attacks, but the ongoing reality of growing up in poverty.  “These high-poverty schools were characterized by a recurring set of challenges: high stress in the adults and children, low readiness to learn in students, negative culture, and an adult staff that felt nothing in their training had prepared them for the challenges they were facing,” recalled Cantor, the study’s co-author.

In response, Cantor founded Turnaround for Children to help schools understand the impact of adversity on learning and to put children on a healthier developmental trajectory. Today, the group sends teams of educators and social workers into public schools in New York City; Newark, New Jersey; and Washington, D.C., to train school staff and offer guidance on how to turn schools into calm, safe environments that help traumatized children heal. Turnaround’s teams typically stay in schools for three to five years, meeting weekly to train staff in practices such as using positive discipline techniques to reinforce good behavior rather than punish bad behavior, and developing routines that create caring classrooms and engaged students.

As the Lincoln staff discovered, helping teachers de-escalate their reactions to student misbehavior is critical to building trusting relationships. “Things like language [and] tone of voice can really trigger or re-trigger some kids, especially kids who have known trauma,” said Cantor.  Turnaround provides one-on-one help to teachers struggling to make the shift. Nonetheless, “making those changes can be very hard for teachers, some of whom have been exposed to trauma themselves,” noted Cantor.

The results at Turnaround schools have been promising.  During the 2014-15 school year, data collected by the group shows a 23 percent increase in teachers highly rated in classroom climate, productivity and engagement, a 49 percent decline in suspensions, and a 42 percent decline in serious behavioral incidents. What’s more, 98 percent of students with significant behavioral and emotional challenges now have a plan in place for services and supports.

There are signs that more educators and policymakers are starting to catch on. Oregon took an important step this spring when it passed legislation to address chronic school absence by using trauma-informed education practices.  And the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act contains provisions and funding sources for school-based mental-health services and staff development that use trauma-based approaches.

In the long term, such changes are unlikely to stick unless they become second nature to school leaders and teachers. Minimally, that means incorporating trauma-informed practices into teacher training curriculums, says Sporleder, who now works as a consultant in schools around the country trying to adopt approaches similar to Lincoln’s.  

But Sporleder believes much of the current education system runs counter to the needs of kids struggling with trauma. “High-stakes testing—defining students by a test score—goes against everything research is telling us about how to help these kids,” he said. “It also leads to hostile environments where extremely stressed teachers are working with highly stressed students. It’s an unsustainable situation and needs to change.”