Utah universities are changing how they handle female-only scholarships. Here’s why.

Critics argue single-sex awards go against Title IX, while supporters say they address inequities.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Irina Slaughter poses for a photograph at the University of Utah, Monday, June 28, 2021. Slaughter is a master's student at the U. and received a scholarship from the Salt Lake City branch of the American Association of University Women.

Irina Slaughter is two semesters away from finishing her master’s degree. What was once a distant dream is now within reach for the Salt Lake City resident.

After coming to the United States from Ukraine, Slaughter divorced her husband and became a single mother. Money was tight, and Slaughter turned to food stamps to help her and her daughter get by.

It wasn’t until her daughter was grown that Slaughter was able to think about sending herself to school. She first earned her bachelor’s degree in economics, with a minor in Russian, at the University of Utah. Now, the 50-year-old is studying mathematics at the U., with a focus on statistics.

“For me, going back to school, it was a life-changing experience,” she said, made possible by a scholarship in 2016 from the Salt Lake City branch of the American Association of University Women.

The branch awards the scholarship to a woman who lives in Salt Lake County and has “had an interruption in her formal education,” according to Amanda Barusch, who runs the group’s scholarship fund. For the past couple of years, the award has been administered through the U.’s scholarship office, she said.

These types of single-sex scholarships — which have largely focused on helping women get into underrepresented fields and assisting single mothers earn college degrees — have come under scrutiny in recent years, though, as some advocates argue that they violate Title IX by favoring one sex over the other.

As of July 2, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights had investigations open at schools in 42 states and Washington, D.C., over complaints about single-sex scholarships.

Five of those investigations are in Utah, at the U., Brigham Young University, Salt Lake Community College, Utah Valley University and Weber State University. All of them were opened last year, between May and August.

Here’s a Q&A explaining the debate around these scholarships, how colleges are responding and the effect it’s having.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Irina Slaughter, left, and Amanda Barusch pose for a photograph at the University of Utah, Monday, June 28, 2021.

Who’s filing these complaints?

The letters that the Office for Civil Rights sent to the five Utah colleges notifying them of the open investigations do not say who filed the complaints against the schools.

But the U. and Weber State each received letters from a Maryland-based organization called SAVE (Stop Abusive and Violent Environments), according to the schools’ spokespersons.

When SAVE formed in 2008, its original focus was on domestic violence issues, said Edward E. Bartlett, the organization’s president. It has evolved to include campus due process, “especially in the context of sexual harassment and sexual assault,” according to the mission page on SAVE’s website. The group also “seeks to assure that the federal Title IX law is applied consistently and fairly to all students, both male and female.”

Posts on SAVE’s webpage focus on people falsely accused of rape and sexual assault, and criticize “kangaroo courts,” victim-centered policies and “Start by Believing” campaigns.

In 2018, SAVE launched its Title IX Equity Project and began reviewing universities’ websites to “assure sex-specific scholarships do not discriminate against male or female students.”

“The project has submitted hundreds of complaints to the federal Office for Civil Rights,” the organization’s website states, “resulting in over a hundred investigations to date.”

In May 2019, SAVE sent the U. a demand letter — which The Salt Lake Tribune obtained a copy of — alleging that more than a dozen female-specific scholarships at the university are “potentially discriminatory.”

SAVE asked the U. to respond with possible remedies. The organization also offered to provide training on the requirements of Title IX “on a paid consultant basis.”

If the U. didn’t address these concerns within 90 days, SAVE said it would file a formal complaint with the Office for Civil Rights.

The U. sent a brief letter back to SAVE that same month, stating, “We sincerely appreciate your bringing these issues to our attention and will carefully review the information provided.”

What is SAVE’s goal?

SAVE is not trying to eliminate scholarships for females, Bartlett said. “The point is to make this a level playing field.”

Bartlett points to college enrollment figures. In 1970, females made up 42% of undergraduate college students in the U.S., according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. In 2019, they accounted for 57%.

“Here we are in 2021,” he said. “I think there certainly were imbalances in the past, but arguably we’ve addressed those imbalances.”

Universities have a couple of options, according to Bartlett. If a school has 20 female-only scholarships and 10 male-only scholarships, one fix is to boost the number of scholarships for males to 20.

If scholarships are given to women to get them into a field where they’re underrepresented‚ such as science, technology, engineering or math, he said, then the same should be done for fields where men have lower numbers, such as teaching or nursing.

“But we found a more common approach used is [to] actually change the award criteria,” Bartlett said, “so that [scholarships are] open to males or females.”

How does Title IX factor in?

Enacted into federal law in 1972, Title IX states, “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.”

“Title IX is a neutral law, and it’s very short and vague,” said Nicole Bedera, a fellow at the Institute for Research on Male Supremacism and a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan, who has studied Title IX and campus sexual violence.

“That makes it really easy for anyone to put any interpretation onto it they want,” she said. “But the spirit of the law, the reason it was passed, is perfectly clear. It was because women were facing discrimination on campus, and girls were facing discrimination in education in K-12. ... The whole point was to protect women.”

The only specific reference to scholarships in Title IX involves an exception for scholarships from beauty pageants, according to Mark Kantrowitz, a national expert who’s studied and spoken about financial aid, and is the author of “How to Appeal for More College Financial Aid.”

Otherwise, he said, much of the discussion around single-sex scholarships and Title IX has centered on the distribution of athletic scholarships for males and females.

Bedera sees similar rhetoric used in the pushback against single-sex scholarships and in the criticism of Title IX and campus sexual violence that led to changes that the U.S. Department of Education made in May 2020 to campus sexual assault rules, bolstering the rights of the accused.

(Andrew Harnik | AP Photo)Then Education Secretary Betsy DeVos arrives for an event in the State Dining room of the White House, Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020, in Washington. That month, a federal judge allowed the Education Department to move forward with new rules governing how schools and universities respond to complaints of sexual assault.

“It’s all sort of based on this idea that men are the ones who are disadvantaged,” Bedera said. “And so to give anything to women is proof of that disadvantage.”

For Bedera, the discussion comes down to the “equality versus equity argument.”

“If we treat men and women exactly the same on campus, when gender inequality exists, that means men will come out on top, over and over and over again,” she said, “because it doesn’t account for the inequities that are taking place,”

A lot of single-sex scholarships for women, she said, are “really focused on issues that have to do with women’s unique experiences of gender inequality,” such as to help victims of sexual assault or single mothers.

“Women hold two-thirds of the country’s student debt, and on average borrow $3,000 more than men to attend college,” according to a November report from the National Women’s Law Center.

Due to the gender wage gap and “women’s overrepresentation in low-wage jobs, women also have less disposable income to repay their loans” and therefore “take more time to pay off their debt,” the report states. “Scholarships for women thus help reduce the wealth gap and reduce inequitable student debt burdens.”

What does the federal government say?

Generally, schools cannot restrict or give preference to a certain sex with scholarships, fellowships or other financial aid. That includes third-party scholarships advertised or promoted by a college or university, according to guidance from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights in a Q&A released in January.

There is an exemption, though. A school can administer, or assist in giving out, a scholarship that is established through a will, trust or other legal means and requires the money be given to a particular sex, according to the document, “so long as the overall effect of the award … does not discriminate on the basis of sex.”

(Isaac Hale | Special to The Tribune) Graduates process into the football stadium during Herriman High School’s graduation ceremony held Thursday, June 3, 2021.

There are also limited circumstances when a school can give out financial assistance to a specific sex as a means of affirmative action to overcome the effects of that sex’s limited participation in a program or activity, according to the Q&A.

In those cases, the school still has to avoid “sex-based quotas,” and it cannot rely on national statistics as evidence of limited participation, the document states. Instead, the college or university has to “clearly articulate why the particular sex-based scholarship or program was necessary to overcome the conditions” at its own institution.

“The school’s justification … may never rely on overbroad generalizations about the different talents, capacities, or preferences of males and females,” according to the document.

Title IX applies to schools that receive federal money. It does not prevent a private, independent organization, such as the Society for Women Engineers, from awarding its own scholarships to females, according to Kantrowitz.

How are Utah’s colleges responding?

University of Utah

As of Jan. 31, all colleges, departments and units at the U. were directed to change their scholarship information “to remove any references to gender-based requirements or preferences,” in light of that Q&A released by the federal government, according to Chris Nelson, the school’s spokesperson.

Scholarships provided by donors are still awarded according to a donor’s “wishes and intent,” he said, “but only after selection through a gender-neutral process.”

To do that, the U. uses a “pool and match” approach, Nelson said, in which all the funds, including from donors, are placed in a large pool, and students are awarded money based on broad eligibility criteria, such as GPA, financial need and academic interest. They are then matched to a specific scholarship, based on that amount.

Occasionally, donors want to give scholarships to someone of a particular gender, Nelson said. When that happens, he said, “the university urges the donor to express their desire in language that is not gender specific.”

While the U. has a few scholarships that express a preference for men, Nelson said, these sex-specific scholarship are typically for women in STEM, “where women have historically been ... and continue to be underrepresented.” And they are usually funded by alumni who want to “support causes close to their heart.”

The U. has also had business donors who recognize a shortage of women in a certain field, Nelson said, and “want to expand the diversity of their applicant pool.”

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Irina Slaughter poses for a photograph at the University of Utah, Monday, June 28, 2021. Slaughter is a master's student at the U. and received a scholarship from the Salt Lake City branch of the American Association of University Women.

Salt Lake Community College

Salt Lake Community College has also considered using the pool-and-match system, Chris Lacombe, the school’s general counsel, wrote in an email, but it “can be difficult to implement.”

“The best way to avoid this problem is to persuade donors to not make a gift or scholarship for ‘single mothers,’” he said, “but rather make sure they are more gender neutral.”

SLCC provided The Tribune the response it sent to the Office for Civil Rights in July 2020 about the complaint filed about sex-specific scholarships at the school. According to the letter, “there was no overall discriminatory effect from SLCC awarding the scholarships at issue in this investigation.”

In recent years, female and male students received scholarships at the same rate that they applied for them, the letter states. During the 2019-2020 school year, for instance, 64.91% of applicants were females and 34.67% were males. According to the college, 63.77% of recipients were females and 36.22% were males.

Weber State University

Weber State conducted a “systematic review” to address the complaint from SAVE and revised language in scholarships and on the school’s websites, according to spokesperson Allison Hess.

“The university is committed,” Hess said, “to helping students receive all help possible to complete their educational journey successfully.”

Brigham Young University

“Last year, BYU provided training to scholarship administrators to ensure they administer sex-specific scholarships in compliance with Department of Education standards,” said spokesperson Carri Jenkins.

The Provo university, owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is also reviewing the Office for Civil Rights’ Q&A, Jenkins said, “to determine if any additional steps should be taken with respect to these types of scholarships.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young University students, Sept. 16, 2020.

Utah Valley University

Utah Valley University is working with the Office for Civil Rights to resolve the complaint filed against the school, according to spokesperson Scott Trotter.

“All of UVU’s scholarships comply with OCR guidelines and with Title IX requirements,” Trotter said.

The Orem university “does not offer scholarships based on sex,” he added. “For example, men are invited to participate in UVU’s Women’s Success Center and its scholarships.”

So, what will the local branch of American Association of University Women do?

Barusch said her organization is unsure how it will move forward.

When it started giving out the money in 2015, the group picked the recipients itself, but that was very time consuming, according to Barusch. Since 2019, the U.’s scholarship office has selected the recipients, she said.

When Barusch contacted the U. earlier this year to see who would be awarded the money the organization raised in 2020, she was told that the university was now using the pool-and-match method after receiving a complaint.

Barusch said the U. did not tell her that the association’s scholarship needed to be gender neutral — only that it would be given out using the pooled system.

“Keeping in mind that AAUW is a women’s organization whose mission is ‘to advance gender equity for women and girls through research, education, and advocacy,’ our board has decided to take a year to evaluate our options,” Barusch said. “At this stage everything is on the table.”

The association may return to administering the scholarships itself, she said, or work with another educational institution. There’s a possibility the branch could restructure the scholarship. Or, she said, it might instead wait to see if the Biden administration changes federal guidance.

Many of the branch’s members have ties to the U., Barusch said, and “feel massively let down” by these recent developments. Barusch herself is a professor emeritus in the College of Social Work.

Still, Barusch and Slaughter hope these types of scholarships will continue to be available for women in the future. It’s hard to go to work and school, and Slaughter said she’s grateful for the opportunity Barusch’s branch gave her.

“I wouldn’t have been able,” she said, “to do it alone.”

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Irina Slaughter poses for a photograph at the University of Utah, Monday, June 28, 2021. Slaughter is a master's student at the U. and received a scholarship from the Salt Lake City branch of the American Association of University Women.

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.