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Tuition waiver program cuts raise concerns

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DURANGO, Colo. – Unresolved issues at Fort Lewis College simmered beneath a scheduled visit to the FLC campus by U.S. Rep. John Salazar, D-Manassa, who has entered the controversy over a cash-strapped state budget and a federally mandated tuition program.

Salazar’s visit was in connection with a ribbon-cutting for FLC’s new student union addition Sept. 1, but he was also slated to talk about the bill he introduced that would use federal funds for Native non-resident student tuition reimbursement. He was meeting with new FLC president Dene Kay Thomas, members of the college’s board of trustees, administrators and students.

A student-led forum Oct. 7 at the college’s Native American Center provided attendees the opportunity “to discuss and make recommendations on the federal legislation pending in both the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate” on the tuition waiver for Native out-of-state students. The Associated Students of Fort Lewis College sponsored the event.

U.S. Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, both Colorado Democrats, introduced legislation in support of Salazar’s bill, which would reimburse the cost of out-of-state Native students’ tuition while Colorado would continue to pay the tuition of Native residents. Both tuition payments are required under a 1910 treaty-related federal agreement.

Salazar’s proposed legislation would direct the secretary of Education to reimburse the college for Indian students who are not residents of Colorado, noting that FLC in 2009 awarded science and math-related degrees to 95 Indian students, “which is equal to 13.5 percent of the total number of degrees awarded to Indian students in the nation” in that year.

“The federally mandated tuition waiver program for Indian students at Fort Lewis College is now at risk of being reduced by severe budget constraints being experienced by the State of Colorado, thereby jeopardizing the education of many talented Indian students in present and future classes from around the nation,” the proposed bill states.

“Fort Lewis College in the State of Colorado is a signature school for Indian students from throughout the nation and graduates more Indian students than any other institution of higher education.” – U.S. Rep. John Salazar, in proposed legislation

FLC “graduates more Indian students than any other institution of higher education,” Salazar’s bill notes, stressing the liberal arts college’s importance.

But some Native students are concerned that the bill may seek to cap the number of non-resident Native students whose tuition would be reimbursed.

While Salazar’s bill intends to maintain the non-resident Native tuition-reimbursement program, it appears to limit the numbers of those eligible for future reimbursement, noting in the bill made available to students that the dollar amount paid to FLC “may not exceed an amount equal to charges for tuition for all Indian students who were not residents of the State of Colorado and who were enrolled in (FLC) for academic year 2009-10.”

FLC currently provides tuition for about 750 Native students from 122 tribal nations in 30 states, according to the proposed legislation, and those students comprise about 20 percent of the college’s total enrollment. The estimated annual cost of out-of-state reimbursement is about $10 million, while the in-state cost in 2009 was approximately $360,000.

Last year, legislation was proposed – and quickly withdrawn – for consideration by the budget-conscious Colorado General Assembly that would have reduced the rate at which the state reimburses FLC for Native out-of-state tuition. The attempted move drew immediate vocal allegations of treaty violations and it prompted other criticism.

Further controversy arose when it was learned that FLC-related property leased by the state land board to Colorado State University had yielded little or no income over a number of years, despite the provision that it was to have been used for Indian students’ tuition. Native students have made repeated requests for a forensic audit of the now-terminated lease.

Some members of the Buffalo Council, a FLC Native student group, have expressed concern about the apparent cap on non-resident tuition payment and also that additional out-of-state Indian students with whom the state has no political relationship could be denied access to free tuition because the state might argue it is unconstitutional to allow a tuition waiver based on “race.”

The Buffalo Council is continuing to question both tuition issues and the tuition waiver in light of a lack of return on the long-term lease of the 6,300-acre “Old Fort” tract, site of a former military outpost and later Indian boarding school, that was to be a source of funds for tuition reimbursement.

In addition to asking for an audit concerning the long-term lease, the council is seeking a cultural resources inventory on the tract and FLC museum, and wants the state to accept a land use proposal centered on Indian education for the Old Fort acreage.

For its part, FLC has said all students and community members will play a part in decisions about the property, although it acknowledges the special relationship of tribal nations to the Old Fort tract and said the college would work with them “to find ways to honor that history.”

FLC was created in 1910 by Congress with the intent of “fulfilling treaty obligations with the various tribes” and the state received the Old Fort parcel on the condition that it be used as an institution of learning free to Native students.