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Free Community College? Congress Thinking About It

Congress has taken up President Obama’s call to make community college free and available to everyone by introducing legislation that would do so.

Congress has taken up President Barack Obama’s call to make community college free and available to everyone by introducing legislation that would have the federal government pay 75 percent of tuition and fees for most students and 95 percent for most American Indian/Alaska Native students at tribal colleges. The rest of the tab would be picked up by states or tribes.

American Indian Higher Education Consortium President Carrie Billy says, “[TCUs] are an incredibly inexpensive, cost effective, holistic supportive way to get a higher education. This proposal would make it even easier for American Indian students. We know that that’s critically important for our students because of the high poverty rates on our reservations.” Billy explains that the average income for tribal college students is $15,000 a year, and they are usually supporting at least two other family members.

Elmer Guy, president of Navajo Technical College, says an educated workforce is key to economic development on reservations and this legislation would encourage students to consider a college education. “Some students don’t really see beyond high school. They think college is something they are not able to do or they don’t have the money for. I think this support would do away with the attitude that college is beyond their reach,” he says.

The need for additional financial support is great. “Our students here really need the financial resources to cover their tuition, fees and other expenses. There are some scholarships available, but they’re spending a huge amount of time trying to find limited resources. If they didn’t have to worry about seeking resources, then their time could be spent studying and keeping their grades up. It would really be beneficial,” Guy says.

To be eligible for this funding (which would go to the college directly in the form of a federal grant), students would have to be earning credits that could be transferred to a baccalaureate program or be in an occupational skills training program that resulted in a recognized credential in an in-demand industry sector.

Students would be responsible for enrolling at least half-time and maintaining adequate academic progress. Colleges would be responsible for providing the remedial, mentoring and other services necessary to help students meet the school’s requirements. For minority students at historically black colleges, TCUs and other minority-serving institutions, the funding could cover the cost of a bachelor’s degree, with separate funding earmarked to support students who have completed a two-year degree and are working toward a BA.

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The undeveloped potential of U.S. youth is a concern for tribal college leaders. “Our people, particularly Indian people, across the country are so adept at so many things. They need a little bit more skill development. They need technical training. They need an education pathway. So why not help? Why not give them that training or pathways in order to have a much better start in life?” asks Cynthia Lindquist, president of Cankdeska Cikana Community College and chairwoman of the AIHEC board of directors.

Education, she says, creates stronger communities. “You make them better qualified. You get them off welfare roles. They’re better citizens, they’re healthier. There are all kinds of benefits relative to an education investment.”

Verna Fowler, president of the College of the Menominee Nation, also sees opportunities for her students here. “A lot of our students come without a lot of background and they struggle. A lot of them are non-traditional students—they’ve been out of school a long time. They have to catch up. And then you finally get them to where they know what college is all about. Once we get them to that point they can soar.”

The legislation could help fund programs that train professionals in areas where there is a desperate need in Indian country, says Laurel Vermillion, president of Sitting Bull College.

“We’re going to start a new bachelor’s degree social work program here at the college. It would be awesome if we could find funding to help because there’s such a huge need on the reservation for social workers—and for teachers. In specific areas like that I think it would really help us to recruit students. It would really be a selling point to help us recruit students into these much-needed programs.”

The America’s College Promise Act of 2015 is written to take effect in the 2016-2017 school year. It is modeled on programs in Tennessee, Minnesota and Oregon, which provide a free community college education, ensuring that students graduate debt-fee and prepared to participate in the workforce. Illinois, New York, Massachusetts and Oklahoma are considering similar legislation, while in Arizona, Texas, North Dakota, Missouri, Indiana, Mississippi and Maryland similar legislation failed to pass, according to the National Conference of State Legislators.

The next step is getting the legislation passed in a divided Congress. Billy says AIHEC worked with the House and Senate to draft the bills and to make sure that TCUs were included. The organization is now working “to get the word out to all of Indian country that this should be something that we are all demanding and asking for—two-year free college education for responsible students. Our students should have the right to have a tribal higher education at a tribal college.”