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Stopping the Student Loan Interest Hike Is Critical for Indian Country, Too

Over the last week President Obama, in public events at high schools and speeches throughout the country, has led the charge to ensure that higher education for all students from all backgrounds is affordable. The president has done this because on July 1, 2012, if Congress doesn’t act, interest rates on federally subsidized student loans will double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. He has also made a direct tie between access to education and the rebuilding of the economy. What has received very little attention, however, is the impact that such an increase would have on access to education, educational achievement, and ultimately the already fragile economy of Indian country.

Native college enrollment has more than doubled between 1976 and 2006. Education after high school, whether it be at a tribal college, a vocational training program, community college, or a four-year institution, has become a real option for the next generation of tribal citizens to advance their knowledge and skills. The number of our young people seeking those opportunities will only increase in the years to come, as 32 percent of the American Indian and Alaska Native population are 18 years old or younger.

Financial aid is critical in helping our young people pursue higher education and earn their degrees. Today approximately 63,000 Native students and their families rely on federal loans—a large percentage of which are subsidized Stafford loans—to help pay for college. With already increasing costs, the steep rise in interest rates would come at a time when Native people need access to higher education more than ever.

College has become more expensive for Native students: between 1995 and 2008, the cost of a full-year education at an undergraduate institution increased from $11,500 to nearly $20,000. Couple those increasing costs with a higher interest rate, and the rate increase will burden students, including Native students, with an average additional $1,000 per school year in student loan debt.

As Indian country knows all too well, this dramatic cost increase will make higher education even more expensive for those who already struggle to afford it. Twenty-eight percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives lived below the federal poverty line in 2010, compared to 15 percent of the general population. Poverty rates are even more pronounced on Indian lands at 38 percent. To afford the rising expenses of college, Native students rely on financial aid of all forms to reach graduation.

College is America’s “economic imperative,” as President Obama has stated, and the stakes are even higher in Indian country. The profound value of higher education for tribal nations extends beyond just economics: it is essential to ensuring our cultural economy, our political survival, and the vitality of our sovereignty.

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Today’s generation of Native youth presents a tremendous opportunity to transform Native nations through higher education. Tribal nations need Native college graduates to bring their skills back home, boost available human capital and thereby attract new businesses, reduce unemployment, stimulate reservation economies through direct spending, and launch their own entrepreneurial ventures.

Yet, the United States Congress could stand in the way of the next generation of entrepreneurs and lawyers, natural resource managers and engineers, agribusiness managers and artists, who all are looking to bolster tribal economies, strengthen our communities, and lead our governments.

Congressional inaction threatens to saddle Native students with even more student loan debt. The rate hike will not only push higher education beyond the reach of many American Indians and Alaska Natives, but will also make it more difficult for Native students to return home after graduation. With higher student loan debt, our young people will be forced to take higher-paying jobs in areas away from Native communities. We can’t afford this loss—culturally or economically.

That’s why, for the sake of economic recovery and our collective future, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) is calling on Indian Country to pick up your phones, write letters, and urge Congress to maintain these crucial investments in higher education and keep college within the reach of all Americans by taking immediate action. Tell members of Congress to stand up against doubling the interest rates for subsidized Stafford loans.

The need is clear: if Native nations are to participate in the global information economy as equal partners and make a robust contribution to America’s economic recovery, more of our citizens must obtain postsecondary degrees. For Native nations to seize this opportunity and significantly increase college completion rates, however, one considerable barrier to higher education must be torn down: cost.

The consequences are not something Indian country—nor the entire nation— can afford. Congress must act now to ensure that all Americans, including American Indians and Alaska Natives, have a fair shot at higher education.

Jefferson Keel is the President of the National Congress of American Indians, the nation’s largest and oldest American Indian and Alaska Native advocacy organization and serves as the Lt. Governor of the Chickasaw Nation, located in Oklahoma. President Keel earned his Bachelor’s degree from East Central University and Master’s degree from Troy State University. He is a veteran of the U.S. Army