Summary of Federal Laws
Non-Discrimination with Respect to Students
|Dean of Admissions|
|Director of Housing|
Age Discrimination Act of 1975
Prohibits discrimination on the basis of age (minimum or maximum) at private institutions that receive federal financial assistance. The Act does not prohibit discrimination when the action taken reasonably takes into account age as a factor necessary to the normal operation or the achievement of any statutory objective of such program or activity, or the differentiation made by such action is based upon reasonable factors other than age. This law also does not apply to any program or activity established under the authority of any law which provides benefits or assistance to persons based upon the age of such persons, or established criteria for participation in age-related terms or describes intended beneficiaries or target groups for such terms. See 42 U.S.C. § 6103 and 34 CFR § 110.1 et. seq.
Questions and Answers
Q. A 13 year old applicant to a university was denied entrance and is claiming discrimination based upon age. What factors would a court or an administrative agency consider under the Age Discrimination Act in looking at this issue?
A. The Federal Age Discrimination Act of 1975 (42 USC 1601 et seq.) and it implementing regulations (45 CFR Part 90) applies to public and private institutions that receive federal funds and has been interpreted to apply to admissions policies of postsecondary institutions. Unlike the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) it does not target discrimination against older Americans (i.e. 40 yrs +) but prohibits (with some exceptions) discrimination based on age (young or old) related to federally funded programs and activities.
It does not prohibit all age distinctions. It permits age distinctions that are necessary to the normal operation or achievement of a program or activity receiving federal financial assistance and also permits actions based on a factors other than age even though it may have a disproportionate effect on persons of different ages if the 'factor' has a direct and substantial relationship to the program's operation or goals. The OCR is the enforcement agency for higher education and commentary accompanying the regulations provide examples of how the OCR the selection criteria that may bear relationship to age.
In programs or activities that do not receive federal financial assistance, the challenge is generally based on equal protection claims and the courts have applied the "rational basis" standard meaning that the action based on age may be permissible if it rationally furthers some governmental objective which is the most relaxed form of judicial scrutiny. In an unpublished opinion, in Miller v. Sonoma County Junior College two 16 year old students won the right to attend a California Junior College. The court held that the college's minimum age requirement of 18 was an arbitrary and irrational basis for exclusion because it was not related to the state's purpose in providing education to qualified students.
While the denial of admission in the Miller case was based on the applicants being too young, a Utah court similarly held that the denial of admission of a 51 year old student to the University of Utah because she was too old would violate equal protection unless the university could show that the action bore a rational relationship to legitimate state purposes.
Conclusion: The denial of admission to students based solely on their "age" (young or old) would violate the Age Discrimination Act of 1975 unless one of the statutory exceptions can be applied. This would require a close evaluation of the programs and activities that the students would be involved in to determine whether a proposed age distinction is necessary for the normal operation of the activity or there are factors other than age that have a substantial and direct relationship to the program's goals and objectives. Since the issue in this case involves general admission as matriculating students the analysis is limited to the Age Discriminiation Act of 1975. If this were a nonfederally funded special program it would require equal protection (rational basis) analysis.
See: Part 4, Sec 220.127.116.11 at Page 775, Kaplan & Lee, 4th Ed. " The Law of Higher Education" as well.
Answer courtesy of Louis J. Saccoccio, Office of the General Counsel, University of Rhode Island.
updated 9/16/11 to add Q and A
updated U.S.C. links 2/6/12 by SZG
CCR updated CFR links 5/15/15