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Native Tuition Hurdles at Fort Lewis College Move Toward Resolution in Senate

The Native American Tuition Waiver program at Fort Lewis College is being considered by the U.S. Senate again since a bill titled Securing Educational Opportunities for Native American College Students: The Native American Education Act of 2012 was introduced this month.
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Current and potential American Indian students at Fort Lewis College (FLC) in Durango, Colorado may be able to relax a bit because yet another bill for continued free Native tuition was introduced in the U.S. Senate in early August and it reaffirms the treaty-related federal and state commitment to Native education.

“We are pleased and excited to see the federal efforts to protect the Native American Tuition Waiver program at Fort Lewis College continue to move forward,” said Mitchel B. Davis, FLC public information spokesman, who said the college is grateful for the support of national legislators.

Its importance to the Native community was emphasized August 17 by Karen Wilde, Pawnee, FLC’s first and only Native governing board trustee, who announced a field hearing by Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colorado) at the Colorado capitol August 22 on “Securing Educational Opportunities for Native American College Students: The Native American Education Act of 2012.”

The proposed $15 million legislation was introduced by Bennet and Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colorado) and also by Democratic Senators Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota; Daniel Akaka, Hawaii, and Mark Begich, Alaska. FLC noted related efforts by Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Colorado) on Native tuition assistance.

The current bill is similar to earlier proposals in intent, but was rewritten because the most recent draft “mentioned Fort Lewis College specifically and some legislators considered that an earmark,” Davis said. Now, in addition to FLC, the University of Minnesota-Morris is included, which has a similar program for Native students, he said.

The federal government would pay FLC an amount equal to the tuition charges for Native non-resident students beginning in 2013, with the state picking up any overages, The government would cap federal reimbursement at the total of Indian nonresident students' tuition charges for the academic year 2012-2013.

Despite the federal funding cap, “this does not cap the number of Native American students who can take advantage of the waiver,” Davis said. “If the cost of the waiver program exceeds the amount provided by the federal government, the obligation to pay the overage continues to rest with the state of Colorado (in regards to FLC).”

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“Nothing in these bills would change the state’s obligation to offer this program to every eligible Native American who want to earn an education,” he said. According to state budget figures, about 1 in 6 of FLC Native students are state residents, while others are from 30 states as far-removed as Oklahoma and Alaska.

The source of the $15 million for the tuition waiver program would be determined by the federal Office of Management and Budget from departmental appropriations, excluding unobligated funds of the Departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs and Education.

The Native tuition issue in nontribal colleges has been around for some time. Colorado Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, who heads both the state’s Department of Higher Education and Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs, last year noted that the state’s Native tuition reimbursement would remain an issue because of its impact on taxpayers statewide.

Earlier still, state lawmakers in 2010 focused on a funding formula when the state reimbursement rate for Native tuition became an issue as cash-strapped Colorado looked for ways out of a general budget dilemma.

The reimbursement controversy centered on the state’s payment in 2009 of just over $16,000 each in out-of-state tuition for 633 Native students for a total of $10 million, while $3,000 each was paid for in-state tuition for 120 Native students, totaling $360,000.

By law, FLC, a former Indian boarding school, was to be “maintained by the state as an institution of higher learning to which Indian students will be admitted free of tuition and on an equality with white students.” A federal appeals court upheld a lower court ruling against the Colorado Legislature, which attempted in 1971 to limit tuition waivers to Indian students who were Colorado residents.

The mandate for tuition-free Indian education “is no longer equitably shared among the states and [non-tribal] colleges because it does not distinguish between Indian students who are residents of the state or of another state,” according to the proposed legislation, which also notes that its purpose is to sustain the mandate.