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It's Never Easy: Getting a College Diploma in Today’s America

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Tribal college funding and American Indian/Alaska Native student preparedness for higher education dominated the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs’ oversight hearing on higher education this week.

Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Montana, opened by noting that American Indian students are less likely to attend a four-year college than any other ethnic group, and their persistence and graduation rates are lower than for other groups.

Jamienne Studley, deputy under secretary at the U.S. Department of Education, pointed out that 90 percent of AI/AN college students attend non-tribal institutions of higher education, while Billie Jo Kipp, president of Blackfeet Community College, noted in her testimony that 50 percent of Native college students enrolled in federally-recognized tribes attend the nation’s 37 tribal colleges and universities.

Kipp told the committee that keeping TCUs afloat on the “pitifully few dollars” available to them is an unending challenge that limits what TCUs can do in their communities. The federal government, she said, appropriates $5,850 per full-time Indian student. This, despite the fact, committee member Sen. Al Franken, D-Minnesota, remarked, that $8,000 per student is authorized. Asked by Franken how to get the funding up to the authorized level, Kipp reminded the Senate committee that Congress is responsible for appropriations.

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Students eligible for Pell grants can get up to $5,730 per year from the federal government, but that still leaves a shortfall. Cheryl Crazy Bull, president of the American Indian College Fund, testified that a year at a TCU costs upwards of $13,000, students’ average income is $15,000 annually, and many have families to support.

While Pell grants provide opportunity for AI/AN students, they also create difficulties, one of the most important being the recent change in Pell grant eligibility, which requires students to complete their degrees within 12 semesters. Many students come to TCUs in need of remedial work in math and language arts. Taking those courses eats into a student’s 12-semester window of educational opportunity, and many students run out of money before they can get their diplomas, said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.

This situation makes academic preparedness a major issue, with much of the fault going to the well-known disadvantages AI/AN students experience not only in high school but at lower grades as well—low-performing schools, high teacher turnover, inadequate physical facilities, culturally-inappropriate instruction and discrimination. Kipp pointed out the 29 TCUs offer childhood and elementary education associate’s degrees and 10 offer elementary education bachelor’s degrees. Ten percent of the degrees earned at TCUs are in education and several TCUs run their own Head Start programs, making them prime candidates to lead the effort to improve academic preparedness.

President Barack Obama took steps this week to make higher education more accessible by issuing executive orders that would allow 5 million more students to repay their student loans (separate from Pell grants, which do not need to be repaid) on a Pay-As-You-Earn basis. The program caps the amount of money a student must repay each month to 10 percent of his discretionary income, with any balance on the loan forgiven at the end of 20 years. Only two TCUs use the federal loan program, according to Crazy Bull, but for the 90 percent of AI/AN students in non-tribal institutions and those students who have already graduated with large student loan debt (the average is nearly $30,000 per student, for a national total of $1.2 trillion), this move could make a significant difference.

On the other hand, the bill introduced by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, that would have allowed students to refinance their student loan debt at today’s lower interest rate failed in the Senate on Thursday when Republicans threatened a filibuster because the program would have been financed by closing a loophole in the tax code that benefits upper-income tax payers.