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United Tribes Uncovers Worth of Tribal Colleges

Tribal colleges and universities have long tried to explain their worth in terms of how they help individual American Indian students earn an education. Now, one of the nation’s three dozen American Indian institutions of higher education is seeing the value of a new explanation tool: an economic impact study that shows how crucial it is to the financial present and future of the communities it serves.

The study, conducted by the United Tribes Technical College (UTTC) of North Dakota, found that it brings a significant among of money – $31.8 million – into the local economies of Bismarck and Mandan each year. And despite having fewer students than either Bismarck State College or the University of Mary, both located in Bismarck, the study found UTTC to have a comparably greater economic impact on the community, on a per-student basis. That finding was attributed to three factors: student housing (over one-quarter of UTTC students live on campus); an elementary school and three child care facilities to serve the children of students; and economic activity from visitors attending tribal conferences and the annual United Tribes International Powwow.

“This is a substantial amount of economic activity coming from one organization,” said David Gipp, president of UTTC for the past 34 years. “It underscores the significance of our role in the community and emphasizes our value as an input in the Bismarck-Mandan economy.”

“In this economy, with this Congress, and even with this administration, being able to demonstrate not only the academic excellence of the schools and their impact on individual American Indian students, is really important,” added Carrie Billy, president of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC). Some policymakers have long expressed desire to see a return of investment when preparing their financial considerations for tribal colleges, she said—particularly in the budget-conscious U.S. House of Representatives this year. The tribal colleges performed pretty well in President Barack Obama’s fiscal year 2012 request, she assessed, but it’s always important to maintain Congress’ appropriation support.

The study proves that “everyone in the state of North Dakota should be advocating for an increased level of federal investment,” Billy said.

According to the report, the college’s economic impact during fiscal year 2010 derived primarily from external sources, mainly federal grants and student financial aid. “UTTC spending entered the economy through wages and salaries paid to 308 full-time employees, non-salary expenditures for goods and services, student and visitor spending, and capital construction outlays,” according to the report, which found the college to be the 23rd largest local employer. United Tribes’ total expenditures last year were $23.5 million, of which wages and salaries accounted for $9.7 million and student spending $2.6 million.

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The economic impact of the powwow and associated events was calculated at $4.6 million. The four-day cultural event is one of the largest events of its kind in the region and is held on the weekend following Labor Day each year, according to college planners. It is preceded by three days of meetings involving tribal government leaders and workers from the region and government leaders from around the country.

The numbers reflected a 48 percent increase in the economic value of UTTC over 2005, which was attributed largely to construction projects the college was able to develop with federal funding. During the study period, three construction projects were underway on campus: a science and technology building, cafeteria expansion, and a multi-use bike path/walking trail. Costing $2.5 million, the three contracts amounted to 24 percent of the total construction activity on schools and educational facilities in Bismarck.

“Those who have witnessed the development of our new campus should be the first to recognize that we are committed to expanding and upgrading our facilities to match our steady enrollment growth,” Gipp said. “We plan to continue making significant capital expenditures well into the future.”

With an enrollment of 1,762 students, UTTC is the third largest of the nation’s tribal colleges. It began offering vocational training programs for American Indian students and their families in 1969, and now offers over 20 vocational programs that are campus-based and delivered online. Approximately 10 to 15 percent of enrollment is non-Indian students.

The study was based on the College Impact Model developed by Caffrey and Isaacs, which is a common measure for college economic impacts used nationwide. “This is a good model for other tribal colleges and universities to establish their economic impact in their communities,” Gipp said.

Billy said several more tribal colleges are soon to begin economic studies of their own in their communities. “I think people are surprised when they see the tremendous impact every tribal college has on its community,” she said in explaining why this route is important. “Not just as academic institutions, but as employers, and in sustaining the entire community. It’s really useful to actually have a number that the college can point to in order to show this kind of progress.

“If you think of the multiplier effect of having the money in the community that is being reinvested over and again, it’s an even greater impact,” Billy said. “The tribal colleges just do so much with so little—their communities really need to recognize their worth.”