Danelle Jishie

Dinè

Earlier this year, Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema led a resolution in Congress that declared the week of Feb. 28 as National Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) Week. Now we need her leadership to go beyond commemorations by supporting President Joe Biden’s proposal to make two years at community colleges and tribal colleges tuition-free.

While many members of Congress are affluent and far from the realities most students face, Sinema received a Pell grant to go to college. Like Sinema’s family, my family also could not afford to help pay for tuition as prices rose each year. Being Dinè, my elders empathized with the importance of higher education growing up. But how could I chase my dreams of college when I could not afford it?

The cost of college is rising because states like Arizona have cut funding for colleges significantly while federal funding has remained stagnant. Since TCUs rely more on public funding for their budgets, funding cuts have disproportionately hurt Indigenous students like me. The rising costs of tuition are why I delayed the start of college, and now have to take out loans to attend.

Today, I enter the classroom as a 32-year-old student at Tohono O’odham Community College. While my story may seem exceptional, the statistics show that my reality as an older, working student with debt is now the norm across the country.

Proposals in President Biden’s Build Back Better bill for two years of tuition-free community college and tribal college are important. They would level the playing field for us by giving us a shot to earn skills and a path to better jobs. This proposal could create transformative opportunities for so many students, Indigenous and otherwise, who are kept out of higher education because of the costs.

Recent research from Georgetown finds that degrees from two-year colleges like ours can deliver the biggest increases in wages over the short term.

One crucial feature of President Biden’s proposal is that it also would help cover costs of higher education beyond just tuition. While many colleges like Tohono O’odham help cover tuition costs for Native American students, we are still left with many expenses that can sometimes exceed tuition. For example, I still cannot afford necessary college materials without the help of additional scholarships and work.

Institutions like mine could use federal funding to help students cover costs of attendance such as books, food and housing. During the pandemic, nearly 3 in 5 college students have experienced food insecurity or housing insecurity.

If enacted into law, President Biden’s proposal would mean that fewer of us would have to choose between paying for tuition, rent, or digging ourselves even deeper into student loan debt.

Another crucial feature of the plan being considered by Congress is the flexibility in the program’s design. This would allow colleges that receive local funding to participate, even if their state legislature is cutting funds for higher education as Arizona has several times.

The result would be many more students across Arizona who could afford college for the first time.

As has been the case so many times in Congress, Sinema’s support for this proposal will be vital for its passage. When the time comes for Sinema to make a decision about tuition-free community and tribal colleges, I hope she is thinking of Indigenous students like me.

We are just looking for a chance to chase the dreams our elders wanted for us.

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