For Colorado, with a shrinking state budget and a growing Native American student body at Fort Lewis College (FLC) in Durango, planning has been difficult because of a potentially bleak fiscal future.
Enter the federal government armed with facts and figures offering support for nontribal colleges operating under a treaty- or trust-related mandate to provide free tuition waivers for all Native American students.
Increasing costs for the tuition waivers have led to a proposal that the federal government pay tuition for non-resident Native students (who comprise about 95 percent of FLC’s Native students) because those students may use their education to benefit the workforce nationwide and shouldn’t be solely a state cost.
“The waivers clearly should continue and all of us engaged in this issue are deeply committed to that,” said Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colorado), who convened a hearing on “Securing Educational Opportunities for Native American College Students: The Native American Education Act of 2012” August 22 in Denver.
FLC’s sole Native trustee, Karen Wilde, Muscogee (Creek)/Pawnee, said the legislation would mean “we can continue to provide Native students with the unique education they deserve, in Durango and near the surrounding mountains—the original home of the Ute people.”
Bennet conducted two panels at the hearing for the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, of which he is a member. The $15 million tuition waiver assistance program was introduced to Congress by Bennet, Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colorado), and four other Democratic senators.
In the first panel, William Mendoza, Oglala/Sicangu Lakota, who heads the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education spoke about the programs and opportunities President Barack Obama is expanding and improving for Native students.
Colorado Lt. Gov. Joseph Garcia, executive director of the state’s Department of Higher Education and chair of the Colorado Commission on Indian Affairs, pointed out that most of FLC’s current $12.8 million tuition aid goes to non-resident Native students, and one result is a depletion of the state’s scholarship pool for the 3,000 Indian students, among others, who attend other institutions in Colorado. Nevertheless, the state plans to continue funding the tuition program “beyond the federal contribution,” Garcia said.
He said FLC serves a historical mandate stemming from a transfer of land and buildings from the federal government in 1911 to provide education “free of charge of tuition and on equal terms” with non-Indian students.
“The Fort Lewis Native American Scholarship Fund provided tuition waivers for 16,408 students from 46 states and 269 tribes over the past 11 years,” Garcia said. “More than 84 percent of these American Indian/Alaska Native students who received tuition waivers were not from Colorado.”
Dr. Dene Thomas, FLC president stressed there is “no intention to cap the number of students” in connection with the bill and noted that FLC “awards more degrees to [Native] students than any other baccalaureate institution in the nation.” FLC was first in the nation in science, technology, engineering and math degrees earned by Native Americans, she said.
Colorado’s former Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Northern Cheyenne, also spoke, noting that FLC’s and other colleges’ influence may aid reservations such as Pine Ridge, South Dakota where, he said, 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 4 boys have attempted suicide before they are out of their teens and where there are extremely high rates of unemployment, substance abuse, and high school dropout.
Bennet also spoke to students to get their views before the hearing but the sometimes-adversarial Buffalo Council, who did ask to speak, said they were told they could not. They also said they were told any disruptions would be met with arrest, an accusation Bennet's spokesman said was not true. Bennet’s spokesman said one slot was open for students, but the FLC student body president had been selected. Others are welcome to submit written comments, he added, and “no one was threatened with arrest.”
After the hearing the Buffalo Council said they were concerned about graves they believe exist in the area of the Indian boarding school that preceded FLC’s present location and are calling for a survey under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. They also believe denoting Native students as "resident" or "non-resident" violates the original trust agreement by making Native nations subordinate to state governments.
The bill is in the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and, with a favorable vote, it could be introduced in the Congress as a stand-alone measure or as part of an omnibus bill, a spokesman for Bennet said. Current complications for any bill's introduction or passage are the upcoming conventions and elections, he added.