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Tribal colleges advocate at the Capitol for funds

‘Because of Title 3, we’ve been able to make progress’

Two students stood outside one of the Senate office buildings on Capitol Hill. Their bright sky blue bags printed with the white letters of AIHEC could be spotted across the street.

Samantha Bercier and Ronnie Morin had finished one of their many meetings and were waiting for the other students. That day they met with the staff of Sen. John Hoeven, R-North Dakota, to talk about tribal colleges.

Last week was National Tribal College Week. The name started in 2015 when former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota recognized that week to bring awareness to the importance of tribal colleges and universities. It was previously referred to as “Capitol Hill days” by the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.

There are 37 tribal colleges and universities across the country in 16 states, 75 campuses with more than 230 federally-recognized tribes recognized represented in these institutions. Students come from more than 30 states, where 14 of those states do not have a tribal college and university.

Map in the Tribal College week agenda

Map in the Tribal College week agenda

The first tribal college began in 1968 as Navajo Community College. It is now known as Diné College and it celebrated its 50th anniversary last year.

(MORE: Look who’s laughing now; the 50 years of Diné College)

During this time of the year, presidents, faculty and invited students of tribal colleges and universities travel to Washington to meet with their congressional representatives and tell their stories.

The students practice to tell a 90-second story. It’s a pitch that helps members of Congress and federal agencies understand in a personal way why tribal colleges are so important.

“I grew up in the tribal college because my uncle Dennis was one of the founders of Project 2000 which built our current campus. Because we had the old southern campus and now we have the new one,” said Bercier, a student from the Turtle Mountain Community College located in Belcourt, North Dakota. 

“So I learned more about the college by growing up there. My dad’s a professor. When I first walked into student support services it's like the world was opened up to me because I can apply for the American Indian College Fund and I can apply for all these different things. If it wasn’t for the support of my college i would’ve never applied for the American Indian College Fund Student Ambassador Program. I’m an ambassador alum for 2 years now. I never would’ve applied for student senate, which I’ve been the vice president for for 3 years. I would’ve never applied for the summer health education program. I got into that and was in Birmingham, Alabama for six weeks. I would've never applied for our tribal youth council. I was the at-large representative for Belcourt.”

“We work with fundraising and meet with different reps. I met with the Minnesota reps and started the missing and murdered Indigenous women walk.”

“I would’ve never know I could do all these things if I hadn’t put a foot out there with out the college’s support. Because it’s bringing back revenue to our reservation, the country as a whole. It’s bringing awareness to people that Native Americans are still here,” said Bercier.

For Morin, the community college near home allowed him to be near friends and family, and just have a support system while going through school.

He worked “endless jobs” after attending Minot State University and withdrawing. He felt like a number while attending the university.

“Tribal colleges are family-oriented, you’re not just a number. The people, instructors, staff, they look after you as if you were one of their own,” he said. “Compare that to a university, you struggle as a Native without family so tribal colleges and universities are a good place to start. You’re around your people and can talk.”

Along with sharing personal stories, college presidents talk the numbers with their lawmakers.

The top priority for advocates as part of legislative summit to tell representatives to renew the funds for another 10 years from the U.S. Department of Education’s Strengthening Institution’s Program, also known as Title 3, Part F. In 2010, the federal government funded the 35 tribal colleges and universities at $30 million annually, a total of $454 million.

Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, is drafting a bill to continue this money because it also funds historically-black colleges and universities and hispanic-serving institutions. With tribal colleges and universities, all are collectively known as minority-serving institutions.

Bercier said for Turtle Mountain Community College, if the money is not reauthorized, they lose resources such as their student support services where many students find mentors and tutors, receive job and academic counseling, and have access to writing centers so they can receive help on their papers.

She also said that with the limited housing for students, the money could go toward building more housing for students who want to attend the college.

Over the past decade, North Dakota received a total of $68 million. The five tribal colleges and universities in the state used the money to create digital databases so students could research, and construction of new classrooms and completing building updates.

The crucial component -- and major difference -- of tribal colleges are the culture, tribal government and Native language classes students have. Some of the money went toward developing these curriculums for students.

Those five tribal colleges in the state could lose $4 million per year if Congress doesn’t reauthorize the funding program.

For Diné College, a huge budget cut means a potential lost of approximately 30 jobs and their student affairs, said the Dine College President Charles ‘Monty’ Roessel.

In student affairs, students have tutors, peer mentors, internship opportunities and help for first-generation college students, he said. Students also prefer peer mentors over their professors.

In the past, the Title 3 funds fixed the well-known circular building on their main campus. The foundation was weak and the building was tilting so something needed to be done. They also renovated classrooms, fixed the HVAC system and upgraded their information technology equipment.

President David Yarlott of Montana’s Little Big Horn College said he will try to find a way to replace the funds if it comes to that point, but if not, they may need to cut programs.

Yarlott spoke on a panel during Tribal College Week with other minority-serving institutions that were needing similar funds.

AIHEC hosts a panel during Tribal College Week.

David Yarlott (second from the right) sits on a panel to address the need of Title 3 funding for tribal colleges and universities in Washington, D.C. 

His college saw an enrollment increase after they used the funds to upgrade their technology, specifically to get better internet. It helped them apply for more grants (including being considered for them) and students could finally do their research for classes.

Before that improvement to their infrastructure the college was at a “disadvantage.”

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Now they have a data collection center, student success center fully staffed, tutors, mentors, student teacher aides, which contribute to the school’s recruitment and retention, he said.

“These are things that really help out our students,” he said during the panel at the Capitol Visitor Center.

What he doesn’t understand is why leaders won’t invest in college students and talked about the results they found with their economic impact study.

The study found that the investment and overall cost to educate students is about $38 million.

“A better educated student tends to get a better job. They pay taxes. They’re less strain on the social welfare, they’re less likely to be incarcerated. So when we start looking at those values added, it came out to $166 million,” he said.

Yarlott said once he had a congressional representative years ago tell him that if they are doing okay with the money they have now, why would they need more?

But that’s the thing. Many working or attending a tribal college or university know, like Indian Health Service, they are underfunded.

Yarlott told the lawmaker, imagine what we could do if they were properly funded.

President of Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College Twyla Baker echoed the same thought in Starbucks at the Holiday Inn near Capitol Hill.

“Imagine the impact,” she said.

The college president is a prime example of a tribal college’s success as the college is also her alma mater. Baker, Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara, holds a bachelor’s degree in environmental geology and technology, a master’s degree in education and a PhD in teaching and learning research methodology.

“We are contributing to the fabric of your state,” she said. So she gets little sleep when in Washington so she can use every minute to make the case for her school and other tribal colleges.

Her three students had the duty of talking with representatives from all 50 states because even though tribal colleges and universities only exist in 16 states, all 50 states must vote on the funding package.

And New Mexico students put a picture to her words earlier that day.

Two students of the Institute of American Indian Arts sat outside Rep. Deb Haaland’s office talking about how tired they were because it was meeting after meeting.

Despite the exhaustion, they knew it was important to be there.

It’s also not every day that they visit a congressional office where they introduce themselves in Navajo.

Until the appropriations is released and even after, advocates of tribal colleges and universities will continue to lobby on Capitol Hill.

Below are funds each state with a tribal colleges and universities received in the last 10 years and what they could lose if Title 3 is not reauthorized by Congress and signed into law by the president.

  • Alaska $9 million; could lose $500,000 per year
  • Arizona $48 million; could lose $2.7 million per year
  • Kansas $25.8 million; could lose $1.5 million per year
  • Oklahoma $7.1 million; could lose $600,000 per year
  • Michigan $37.5 million; could lose $1.6 million per year
  • Minnesota $32 million; could lose $1.8 million per year
  • Montana $96 million; could lose more than $5 million per year
  • Nebraska $18 million; could lose $1 million per year
  • New Mexico $65 million; could lose $3.9 million per year
  • North Dakota $68 million; could lose $4 million per year
  • South Dakota $58 million; could lose $3 million per year
  • Washington $21.5 million; could lose more than $1 million per year
  • Wisconsin $22.7 million; could lose more than $1 million per year 
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Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Diné, is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter: @jourdanbb. Email: