When the state of Colorado accepted the 6,279-acre Fort Lewis military post south of Hesperus in exchange for agreeing to admit Native American students at no tuition charge, no one could have expected that Native American enrollment would reach the number that it has.
Nor could anyone in 1911 have expected that those students would come from far beyond the Four Corners, in fact from most of the states in the country.
In 1911, there may have been 30 or 40 Native American students from three or four tribes within perhaps a day’s ride of the fort’s grounds. Now, there are about 850 students, most from outside Colorado.
Colorado is paying about $11 million annually for the $16,072 out-of-state tuition rate for those students, and Native American enrollment continues to climb slowly.
It is the federal government that ought to be paying the out-of-state tuition.
Fort Lewis College has engaged a lobbying firm to advocate for the issue (even legislation for the most logical federal funding requires a lobbying firm), and its president and senior administrators have made numerous trips to Washington to gather supporters for the legislation. Numerous members of Congress from other states, recognizing that some of their residents are benefiting from the mandate Colorado is under, have signed on as co-sponsors. That is appropriate.
While a one-time payment is not what is needed, $11 million annually – or more, as it will be the amount due for the year that the legislation is passed – is a relatively small number for Washington. Colorado does not escape, either. Colorado will continue to pay the tuition for in-state Native Americans, and the state will pay the excess above the amount stipulated in the legislation for out-of-state students.
These are students, remember, who have met the same admission standards as non-Native Americans, and they have to pay room, board, fees and books. More is spent to house and feed a student than is spent in the classroom.
The timing could be better for this legislative effort. The political mood of the country is anti-spending, and new funding must come from reductions in spending elsewhere. And while large amounts of money are spent on tribal colleges and on other Native American education programs, those beneficiaries understandably are reluctant to share.
There is every indication that advocates for a federal role in underwriting Native American tuition at Fort Lewis College – and at the University of Minnesota-Morris, also included – will continue their efforts. They should.
The responsibility for educating to such a large degree a student population that comes from beyond its state lines should be shifted from Colorado to the federal government.