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Higher education initiative introduced in Congress

WASHINGTON - A group of House Democrats has introduced a measure which could make higher education more affordable for all students, including American Indians.

The new bill also aims to strengthen colleges and universities which primarily serve African American, Hispanic, and American Indian students.

"The 21st Century Higher Education Initiative" was introduced by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., along with 92 other members. The bill would double maximum value of a federal Pell grant and double federal support for "... Historically Black Colleges, Hispanic Serving Institutions, and Tribally Controlled Colleges."

Miller said the bill is intended to increase the opportunity for all minority Americans to benefit from higher education and was developed with input from tribal colleges.

"Tribal Colleges were involved in a variety of ways, from working with the committee in developing the bill, to helping identify some of the support that's needed to help out American Indian students," Miller said.

There are 31 tribal colleges across the United States that use cultural relevance to encourage American Indians, especially those living on reservations, to overcome some higher education barriers they face. For 30 years these institutions have allowed a number of American Indian students to attend college near their communities.

A report issued by the American Indian Higher Education Consortium showed that American Indian enrollment increased 62 percent, from 2,100 students in 1990 to 25,000 students in 1996.

The primary source of support for tribal colleges is the federal government, under the Tribally Controlled College or University Assistance Act. However, the approximately $3,000 available per American Indian student is almost 40 percent less than the typical community college receives in per-student funding from federal, state, and local government revenues.

"Our communities suffer from so much economic depression and social adversity," said Janine Pease-Pretty on Top, former president of Little Big Horn College in Crow Agency, Mont. "Tribal colleges provide real opportunity that strengthens our economic development, cultural understanding, and social stability. We need to build on these successes and make college possible for a much broader group of American Indian people."

The consortium reports that all 31 tribal colleges offer associate degrees, four offer bachelor's degrees and two offer master's degrees. The average age of a tribal college student is 32, and 64 percent are women. Most attend on a part-time basis.

A major provision of the bill would double resources and build infrastructure for developing institutions like tribal colleges. The initiative would double funding for minority serving institutions under Titles III and V of the Higher Education Act over three years. Funding for tribally controlled colleges and universities would increase to $45 million and funding for Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian-serving institutions would increase to $20 million.

"The ultimate goal is to build on the record of academic excellence of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic Serving Institutions, and Tribal Colleges," Rep. Miller said. "We look forward to helping all students prepare for the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century."