This is the first in a four-part series about the Native American tuition waiver at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado.
On a morning this April that threatened rain, Davonne Teri John lined up with more than 400 other Fort Lewis College seniors to accept her baccalaureate degree.
Bright blue and red beads of her powwow regalia peeked through her graduation gown, and a silver and turquoise stone bracelet gleamed on her wrist.
As a member of the Navajo tribe, John is one of hundreds of Native American students at the college who qualified for free tuition because of a century-old promise made by the state of Colorado.
She didn’t forget that promise when she graduated, John said.
“The tuition waiver, financially, it helped me accomplish my college career,” she said. “I’m really thankful for it.”
FLC is one of only two colleges in the nation where a contractual agreement between state and federal government created a tuition waiver available to any member of a Native American tribe. The waiver has changed the lives of thousands of Native American students and, in many ways, come to define the college perched above downtown Durango.
The tuition waiver’s roots date back to 1911, when Colorado accepted a 6,279-acre land grant from the federal government. In exchange for the sprawling property located five miles south of Hesperus, Colorado agreed to maintain the land and buildings there as an institution of learning and admit Native American students tuition free.
The learning institution became FLC’s first campus.
Since then, the tuition waiver has provided a constant reminder of the college’s historic roots. In recent years, the waiver and the land known as the Old Fort property have gained a bigger spotlight as college administrators, state officials and legislators wrestle with potential changes in what the future looks like for both.
College administrators have focused their efforts on a bill that would create a federal funding stream for the tuition waiver. In tight budgetary times it’s getting harder and harder for the state to reimburse the college for the $13 million annual cost of the waiver, college officials and state legislators said.
With Native American populations increasing, the state is headed down “a slippery slope” in its ability to pay for the waiver without federal help, former U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell said.
“If we don’t find some kind of solution, it’s only going to get worse at the state level,” said Campbell, who was Colorado’s senator from 1993 to 2005 and who helped draft and lobby for the bill.
Federal funding would help guarantee that the waiver continues to be supported regardless of the state’s finances, he said.
The college also is gaining a bigger role in shaping the use of the Hesperus property, also known as the Old Fort. Colorado State University, which had leased the land since FLC moved to Durango in 1956, left unexpectedly in 2010, leaving the FLC with a new level of authority over what projects to pursue on its former campus.
But how the college moves forward will necessarily be shaped by history and Colorado’s century-old promise. Whatever happens to the waiver, and the land that created it, that path will continue to shape FLC. And with more than $100 million local economic impact, the college’s future inevitably will affect that of the entire region.
Creating the promise
FLC’s tuition waiver, which guarantees free tuition to all Native American students, is similar to only one other college in the nation: the University of Minnesota Morris. In both cases, the tuition waiver evolved out of the institution’s boarding-school roots.
The Old Fort property served as a military fort before the federal government turned it into a boarding school in 1891. Almost 20 years later, with enrollment declining, the federal government offered to give Colorado the 6,279 acres that encompassed the school property. The deal included requirements that land must be maintained as an institution of learning and that Indian pupils at all times would be admitted to the school free of charge for tuition and “on terms of equality with white pupils.”
Colorado Gov. John Shafroth accepted the offer in January 1911 and the tuition waiver was born.
Facing the implications
Today, the tuition waiver has grown to proportions never envisioned by the legislators who agreed to the contract. The college enrolled about 800 Native American students last year, or about 20 percent of its student body, and awards more degrees to Native American and Alaskan Native students than any other baccalaureate institution in the nation.
But in 1911, people believed Native Americans as a distinct population were going extinct, said Majel Boxer, chairwoman of FLC’s Native American and Indigenous Studies Department. The U.S. government massacred entire tribes during the Indian Wars of the late 1800s and aimed to assimilate the children of remaining tribal members through boarding schools.
“Native peoples were seen as the vanishing American,” Boxer said.
The waiver is, and always has been, funded entirely through the state’s general fund, and growing Native American enrollment at FLC has worried legislators thinking about the budgetary effects.
Efforts were made in 1971 and again in 2010 to limit the waiver or reduce the amount of state funding funneled to FLC to cover Native American tuition costs. Both efforts sparked fierce reactions from students, college professors and Native American groups from across the region.
Such responses reflect the history of the tuition waiver and the larger context of Native American history, said Carey Vicenti, an FLC professor who worked as a former chief judge of the Jicarilla Apache Tribal Court and briefly as an assistant to the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs during the Clinton administration.
“In Native America, we have rare small victories, and one of them is the tuition waiver,” Vicenti said. “To lose a small victory is pretty bad, particularly when the background is the loss of a country.”
Economics of the waiver
Economically, the tuition waiver is a vital pillar of the college and the region. The opportunity for free tuition is a driving force behind most Native Americans’ decision to attend FLC.
If the waiver were ever to end, enrollment among Native American students would nosedive, depriving the college of millions of state dollars, Vicenti said. The college would have to cut faculty, course offerings and programs to make up the loss, which would be a turnoff for all students.
The region would feel the repercussions if the college were ever to falter. FLC has a total local economic impact of $108 million annually, according to a 2010 study produced by the FLC school of business. The college is the third-largest employer in the area, and a “force for economic stability in the community,” the report said.
“It would have a tumbling effect,” Vicenti said. “If the waiver was lost, I think you would see an economic spiral that would ultimately bring down the college, Durango and La Plata County. The impact is bigger than most people think.”
The waiver also brings added benefits to the college. As a Native American-serving, nontribally controlled institution, the college is eligible for millions in federal grants. Since 2008, the college has received $6.4 million in federal Title III grants, two of which were based on its high percentage of Native American students. The grants have funded new science lab equipment, academic advisers and a new public health major, among other things.
Academically, the tuition waiver puts FLC in a unique position to develop a nationally recognized American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program, said Rick Wheelock, professor emeritus of Native American and Indigenous Studies at the college. Wheelock said he envisions FLC becoming a center for research and scholarship on the subject.
Education as a sacred trust
Economics aside, the tuition waiver carries a heavy symbolic weight. The waiver is one of many manifestations of the trust relationship between the tribes and the federal government that still exists today, said Boxer, of FLC’s Native American and Indigenous Studies department.
Wheelock attended FLC as a student in the 1970s and said over the years students and professors have referred to the waiver as a sacred trust symbolizing the state’s commitment to Native education and native-directed needs.
The waiver is one of few tangible and lasting examples of collaboration gone right, said William Mendoza, executive director of the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education.
“This represents probably the strongest commitment we see around the country in terms of institutions of higher education, state government and federal government working to address needs of American Indian and Alaska Native students,” Mendoza said.
Justin Boyd, an FLC graduate, sees the waiver’s importance as even greater.
“With the tuition waiver, students have a fighting chance,” he said.
This article originally appeared at DurangoHerald.com. Reprinted with full permissions from The Durango Herald.