Like at most four-year colleges, enrollment at Western Kentucky University leans female while its athletic program skews male.
More than 60% of its undergraduates are women compared to just 35% of its athletes.
Despite the obvious gap, the Hilltoppers told USA TODAY they comply with Title IX by offering women athletic opportunities that are proportionate to the makeup of their student body.
But they’re not proportionate – not even close.
A USA TODAY analysis found that the school would need to add 254 women’s roster spots – a shift that would more than double its current number of opportunities for women and require a wholesale remodel of its athletic program – to close the gap and come into compliance with Title IX.
That Western Kentucky has so much ground to make up in providing equitable opportunities five decades after the passage of the landmark law banning sex discrimination in education is hardly unique.
USA TODAY found 87% of colleges and universities are not offering athletic opportunities to women proportionate to their enrollment, according to the news organization’s analysis of 127 public and private schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision during the 2020-21 academic year.
Proportionality is the surest of the three ways that schools’ athletic programs can show compliance with Title IX under the U.S. Department of Education’s three-prong test. Calling the measure a “safe harbor,” the agency states that the gender composition of its athletic program should substantially match that of its undergraduate enrollment.
To measure schools’ proportionality, USA TODAY used enrollment data from the National Center for Education Statistics and athletic participation data from NCAA reports it obtained from the schools under public records law or the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act database.
It found that 110 schools would need to add a total of 11,501 female roster spots to close the participation gap. That’s an average of 104 per school – roughly the size of a football team and enough to add three or four women’s teams each. Among the schools with the biggest gaps were the University of Memphis, the University of Louisiana at Monroe and the University of South Alabama.
None was larger than the University of North Carolina, though. It would need to add 395 female roster spots, the analysis found.
Just 17 schools had participation gaps smaller than 15 additional roster spots for women – the cutoff USA TODAY used to determine if a school was likely to have compliance concerns. They included Auburn University, New Mexico State University and the University of South Carolina.
“This underscores the saddest fact of Title IX’s 50th anniversary – it’s been 50 years and the vast majority of colleges and universities in this country are still in blatant violation,” said Arthur Bryant, an attorney who has litigated Title IX cases for decades. “They are not giving women the equal treatment and opportunities and athletic financial aid the law requires and they deserve.”
In addition to proportionality, schools can demonstrate compliance through two other prongs. Prong two allows them to show a continued history of increasing desired athletic opportunities for the underrepresented sex – usually women. Prong three allows them to show they meet the athletic interests and abilities of their female students.
USA TODAY asked all 127 FBS schools in the analysis whether their athletic programs comply with Title IX and under which of the three prongs they could show it. Of them, just 42 of them answered USA TODAY’s questions. Twenty-eight said they complied with the first prong, six cited the second prong and seven cited the third. The University of Oregon claimed both the second and third prongs.
Most of the 42 schools appear to fall short of the standards needed to meet compliance regardless of which prong they chose, USA TODAY found.
Eighty-five of the schools did not, or declined to, answer at all, leaving the public in the dark about how – or if – some of the nation’s top colleges and universities are complying with the landmark law five decades after its passage.
Absent a federal mandate to attest to their compliance status, schools know going on the record could be a liability, experts said. The U.S. Department of Education can investigate schools to determine whether they are providing women enough athletic opportunities – a process that involves examining internal roster numbers not available to the public.
But its investigations are almost exclusively reactive and in response to complaints. Female students could file a federal complaint or a lawsuit, but someone has to know about the problem first.
And that’s the ultimate problem with Title IX, said Marianne Vydra, a longtime senior woman administrator at Oregon State who is now retired: “It’s never about offense, it’s always about defense.”
That the data isn’t centralized anywhere is another issue.
“It’s really challenging that there is no central location to say what prong schools are using to really identify that,” said Sarah Axelson, vice president of advocacy at the nonprofit Women’s Sports Foundation.
Amid a widespread belief and mounting evidence that schools are, by and large, not complying with the law, just getting clarity on which prong a school uses is a significant step.
The University of Illinois joined several of its conference counterparts in declining to answer USA TODAY’s questions, with a spokesman saying the school was among many others in the Big Ten that had discussed it and decided not to respond.
“That tells me that many of those schools are in violation of Title IX,” Bryant said. “If they were clearly in compliance, they could easily cite which part of the three-part test they were complying with and give you the backup information to show it.”
Title IX: 'Revolutionary' legislation, but inequalities still exist 50 years later
Jasper Colt and Hank Farr, USA TODAY
Triple-digit participation gaps
For Western Kentucky, the task of closing its participation gap would be almost Herculean.
To make a dent in the 254 spots, the Hilltoppers could start by increasing their existing women’s rosters so they’re on par with the average NCAA squad size for Division I. That would add 56 opportunities.
After that, they’d still have to double the number of women’s teams in their program.
Western Kentucky could do this by adding swimming and diving and beach volleyball – two sports its conference sponsors but the school doesn’t. Next it could add field hockey and bowling, two high school sports offered in the state.
Even then, the school would still need to add four NCAA emerging sports for women – and all that would close its gap.
Emerging sports are meant to promote development for women. Currently, five sports – acrobatics and tumbling (average squad size of 39.3), equestrian (39.2), rugby (31.1), triathlon (eight) and wrestling (15) – are on the list, but they are not sponsored by most schools.
In a statement, Western Kentucky spokesman Zach Greenwell did not answer USA TODAY’s questions about the school's participation gap, how it could show compliance via proportionality and any steps it was taking to address it.
“WKU is committed to accommodating the collegiate athletic interests of the students in the university’s geographic region,” Greenwell said.
Like Western Kentucky, schools around the country, big and small, couldn’t reach the proportionality standard. Many weren’t even close.
USA TODAY’s analysis of proportionality for all schools showed 81 would need to add at least 50 opportunities for women, 46 would need to add at least 100 and 15 would need to add at least 200.
“We have a lot of work to do,” said Rep. Lori Trahan, D-Mass., after gasping at those numbers. “This is what many members in the Congress are building, sort of coalitions so we get at the heart of these gaps in the 50th anniversary. It shows we have a long way to go.”
USA TODAY contacted the athletic departments and presidents’ offices at 11 schools with some of the biggest participation gaps to ask about those disparate opportunities and how they would correct them.
Many did not respond, including the University of Louisiana at Monroe (303 opportunities short), the University of Virginia (219 opportunities short) and the University of Florida (167 opportunities short).
Among the other schools that fell short were the University of Memphis, which would need to add 308 opportunities for women; the University of California-Berkeley, which would need to add 163; and the University of Washington, which would need 127.
Michael Schroeder, director of integrated communications at Memphis, said, “We are aware of the growing proportionality gap between women’s and men’s participation and are currently exploring ways to address it.”
Both Cal and Washington cited the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic in their response.
“We review our participation data every year, and we remain committed to continued Title IX compliance and the equitable treatment of our men’s and women’s teams,” said Cal spokesman Herb Benenson.
Washington spokesman Victor Balta cited increasing enrollment rates for women, a trend accelerated by the pandemic, as well as an additional year of eligibility the NCAA granted athletes because of the pandemic impacting team rosters.
The school, one of only a few with a female athletic director, recently proposed a six-year plan that Balta said would include reducing some men’s roster numbers after the extra year of eligibility wasn’t a factor.
"The University of Washington believes strongly in providing equitable opportunities for our student-athletes, not only to maintain compliance with Title IX but because it is the right thing to do," Balta said. "It is important to note that the target for Title IX compliance is always moving and UW Athletics is constantly working to ensure compliance."
While the schools’ numbers did worsen after the pandemic, USA TODAY’s analysis of 2018-19 data showed both schools also fell short of proportionality and had gaps big enough to accommodate at least one viable team. That’s the measure the federal government uses to determine whether or not a school is in compliance.
Twenty-eight schools told USA TODAY they comply with the proportionality prong. The University of West Virginia said it was not in compliance for 2020-21 because it did not have novice rowers during the pandemic but that it historically complies by that prong.
All but seven of the 28 had a gap big enough to sustain a viable women’s team.
Those that fell short include the University of Texas, which claimed proportionality even though it would need an additional 148 participation opportunities for women – more than its entire football team – to close the gap.
Texas spokesman John Bianco said the Longhorns “continually evaluate” their program to maintain substantial proportionality.
The University of Tennessee, too, claimed compliance despite needing 116 more opportunities for women. Tennessee spokesman Tom Satkowiak said the school’s data shows it “consistently” achieves substantial proportionality.
That so many schools fall short despite the public posturing is no secret among some athletic department officials. In an internal email inadvertently sent to USA TODAY, a Georgia Tech spokesman said he believed that there are "very very few schools in compliance with prong one."
The spokesman, Mike Flynn, said he thought the Yellow Jackets were one of the exceptions. But the school fell short, although by a smaller margin than most. It had a gap of 39 spots, enough to accommodate at least one and perhaps multiple women's teams.
The widespread noncompliance is a byproduct of the priorities of big-time college athletics departments, even as they profess to be concerned about gender equity, experts said.
“Athletic directors don’t get hired to build a great women’s sports program,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., “they get hired to get the football team into the top 25. That’s the sad reality.”
'You haven’t added a sport in 11 years or 10 years'
With hundreds of millions of dollars from Nike co-founder Phil Knight and a storied track and field program that has earned it world renown and the nickname Track Town, USA, the University of Oregon boasts a proud athletic history.
By their own telling, the Ducks comply with Title IX by almost every prong. In an email to USA TODAY, spokesman Jimmy Stanton said they comply with prongs two and three and are “in substantial compliance” with prong one.
But USA TODAY’s analysis calls that into question.
Of the seven schools that claimed to comply with the second prong, Oregon was one of two that did not appear to meet the standards.
Under prong two, the federal government assesses a school’s history of adding women’s teams and whether that has been responsive to students’ interests and continues into the present day. There’s no set timeline for how frequently schools should add sports, but they effectively cannot claim prong two if they’ve cut women’s sports.
Had schools been adding women’s teams consistently since the passage of Title IX in 1972, experts said, few if any would need to comply under prong two because they would have reached proportionality by now.
Instead, many added teams in the 1970s and early 1980s in response to the law and again in spurts in the late 1990s under greater enforcement from the federal government, but it has been sporadic nationwide since.
“We’re 50 years into this. It’s easy to say, 'No, you’re not continuing to add opportunities,'” said Connee Zotos, who spent 42 years in higher education as an athletic director, coach and faculty member. “'You haven’t added a sport in 11 years or 10 years, so they can’t claim that.' Take that off the table.”
In Oregon’s case, it has added four women’s sports since the mid-1990s, including beach volleyball in 2014.
But prongs two and three also require there be no unmet interest on campus that could be served by adding another sport. Stanton told USA TODAY that a recent campus student survey “did not reveal significant interest in a sport UO does not already offer.”
A USA TODAY review of the school's athletic history and club sport offerings shows otherwise.
The school has club teams in three emerging sports – equestrian, rugby and triathlon – each of which it could elevate to varsity status to help reduce the 106 women’s roster slots it would need to reach proportionality.
Additionally, the Pac-12 Conference, of which Oregon is a member, also offers three sports that Oregon doesn’t: gymnastics, rowing and swimming and diving. High schools in the state offer girls wrestling – which is one of five NCAA emerging sports – but the Ducks have not added that sport either.
Among the other schools claiming compliance with prong two, the University of Arizona also hasn’t added a new sport in eight years. It last added beach volleyball in 2014 but nothing since. Like Oregon, Arizona has a triple-digit participation gap (111 opportunities needed for women) and sports sponsored by other conference members that it could add.
That includes lacrosse, for which the Pac-12 announced Tuesday would add the University of California-Davis and San Diego State University as affiliate members. Rival Arizona State University also sponsors a team; its roster boasts no in-state players but features many recruited from around the country.
Senior Woman Administrator Erika Barnes, who played first base for the Wildcats on their 2001 national championship softball team, said Arizona’s athletic department is constantly assessing if and when it should add women’s sports. That practice got derailed by COVID-19 in March 2020, when the NCAA shut down athletics and many schools made significant budget cuts.
Now, with collegiate athletics returning to normal, Barnes said the school is “fast-tracking” expansion. In its May 18 newsletter, the department said it was “nearing a special announcement regarding the addition of a new women's sport at Arizona.”
The University of North Carolina-Charlotte, which initially was on the list of schools that hadn’t recently added a women’s team, announced on May 18 that it would form a varsity women’s lacrosse team with competition expected to start in the 2024-25 academic year.
It will become the school’s 10th women’s team and will help narrow its female participation gap of 124 roster spots.
UNC, others claim women's needs met
The University of North Carolina’s flagship campus at Chapel Hill had the largest participation gap of all the schools in USA TODAY’s analysis.
With women making up 60.1% of undergraduate enrollment but 43.7% of athletic participation opportunities, the Tar Heels would need nearly 400 additional female roster spots to reach proportionality – nearly double their current number.
Like seven other schools, UNC said it complied with Title IX under the third prong – meeting the interests and abilities of its female population. But USA TODAY’s analysis does not support those claims.
Schools have several methods to determine whether there’s an unmet interest on campus. Among them: surveying students, evaluating requests to add a team or elevate a club to the varsity level and taking stock of the sports offered by high schools from which they draw prospective students.
Given the broad geography from which these schools draw students – with almost all of them recruiting regionally and the biggest programs nationally – experts argued it's difficult to show compliance by this prong.
Generally, if there’s a demonstrated interest and ability to sustain a team that has a reasonable expectation of competition, the education department’s own guidance says it will not find the school in compliance.
“Most schools don’t want to spend the money necessary to sponsor all of the women’s teams in which women athletes have the interest and ability and competition available,” Bryant said. “That’s why most schools are not in compliance with part three.”
At North Carolina, students compete in several club sports for which there is NCAA competition, including beach volleyball and water polo. North Carolina doesn’t sponsor any of the emerging sports at the varsity level, though it has clubs for three of them.
Asked directly about how it could be meeting the interests and abilities of its students, North Carolina did not answer USA TODAY’s questions and instead gave a statement referencing the success of its existing women’s teams.
“We are proud of our rich tradition of women’s sports at Carolina,” spokeswoman Robbi Pickeral Evans wrote. “Fifteen of our 28 varsity sports are women’s teams; only four schools in the Power 5 conferences sponsor more.”
Like North Carolina, some of the schools that claim prong three also carry massive participation gaps. Some are located on campuses rife with club sports that could be elevated to varsity. Others could add sports already sponsored within their conference, and others have local high school teams that would support college squads — or all three.
With 61.5% female enrollment and 38.5% of athletic opportunities going to women, South Alabama would need to add 292 women’s participation opportunities to be proportional.
The school told USA TODAY it primarily uses a survey of new students to assess interest. But federal guidance makes it clear that’s not sufficient, saying the department “does not consider survey results alone as sufficient evidence of lack of interest.”
“No. 3 is dangerous,” said Vydra, the retired senior woman administrator. “You can’t just survey.”
South Alabama athletic director Joel Erdmann said he records any requests and talks with high school administrators, but South Alabama doesn’t have a formal process for either of those means of assessment. A subcommittee within the athletic department discusses any interests revealed in the survey or requests, but that hasn’t happened in a couple of years because of the pandemic, he said.
“We do use the survey as a significant piece of what we do, but it’s not isolated,” Erdmann said. “It does not operate in a vacuum.”
Erdmann said the Jaguars’ conference, the Sun Belt, has had informal discussions but has not collectively moved on adding a women’s sport. But South Alabama has some within its geographic footprint, including several beach volleyball programs in neighboring states.
“We are not the only school that is in our current situation with proportionality the way it is and looking at the third prong,” Erdmann said.
Indeed, experts said, interests likely exceed what schools are offering when many of these schools recruit nationally or even internationally.
“What Title IX’s history proves more than anything else is if you build it, they will come,” Bryant said. “If schools offer opportunities for women to participate in intercollegiate athletics, women will sign up for the teams.”
Contributing: Kenny Jacoby, Steve Berkowitz, Indiana University's Arnolt Center for Investigative Journalism and Knight-Newhouse Data project at Syracuse University