Old Fort Lewis offers little help with tuition waiver

I have heard a great deal of interest from Fort Lewis College students, alumni and members of our community in the future of the land that is the birthplace of Fort Lewis College, known as Old Fort Lewis at Hesperus.

There is also interest in the future of the Native American Tuition Waiver program. As the impact of these two subjects stretches beyond the borders of campus, I would like to present the latest developments for both the Old Fort and the tuition waiver.

First, the Old Fort Lewis land. In response to some concerns, FLC has worked with the Colorado State Land Board and the Colorado Attorney General’s Office this year to investigate the history and usage of the Old Fort Lewis property. As a result, a document entitled “The Old Fort Lewis at Hesperus FAQ” was written that gives an accurate overview of the administration and history of the land. The FAQ was placed on our website this spring and can be viewed at www.fortlewis.edu/tuitionwaiver.

It has been suggested that the Old Fort land can be used to generate funds to help the state cover the cost of the tuition waiver. Given that Colorado State University terminated its lease on the Old Fort land early because of financial issues and given the cost of the waiver today, the idea that any funds raised from the Old Fort could make much of an impact in the waiver cost is, unfortunately, unrealistic.

Second, the status of the Native American Tuition Waiver program. Fort Lewis College is continuing to fight for its preservation. I have personally made several trips to Denver and Washington, D.C., to meet with legislators and advocate for the waiver program. Colorado’s U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and Mark Udall, both Democrats, and U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, have introduced legislation in the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives to solicit federal funding to help preserve the tuition waiver program.

The reason federal funding is being sought is, first of all, fairness. In a very real sense, the tuition waiver program has become a national program. In 2011, 725 of the 860 Native American students at Fort Lewis were from out-of-state and the top five tribes with the highest number of students enrolled at FLC (Navajo, Cherokee, Choctaw, Tlingit/Haida and Chickasaw) were not from Colorado. We know that many of these out-of-state Native American students plan on returning to their home reservations after completing their degrees, thereby spreading the benefit of an FLC education across the country.

Concern has been expressed that this federal legislation in some way weakens the contractual obligation that Colorado has to provide the waiver. To answer just this concern, the bills specifically say that nothing contained in its language shall be construed to relieve Colorado of its contractual obligation to provide the waiver. Even if the cost of the out-of-state waiver exceeds the amount provided by the federal government, Colorado is contractually obligated to cover that overage in addition to covering the in-state waiver cost.

The federal legislation is gaining support from other legislators and the Native American community. In addition to Bennet and Udall, four other senators have signed on as co-sponsors to the Senate bill, including Sens. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii; Mark Begich, D-Alaska; Amy Klobuchar D-Minn.; and Tom Udall, D-N.M.

In addition to Tipton, the House of Representatives legislation is also gaining supporters, including 14 co-sponsors: Reps. Timothy Bishop, D-N.Y,; Mike Coffman, R-Colo.; Tom Cole, R-Okla.; Diana DeGette, D-Colo.; Cory Gardner, R-Colo.; Paul Gosar, R-Ariz.; Alcee Hastings, D-Fla.; Ruben Hinojosa, D-Texas; Dale Kildee, D-Mich.; Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M.; Ed Perlmutter D-Colo.; Collin Peterson, D-Minn.; Jared Polis, D-Colo.; and Don Young, R-Alaska.

We have support of the legislation from the following: National Congress of the American Indians, National Indian Gaming Association, Native American Rights Fund, Southern Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Indian Tribe, Navajo Nation, Mescalero Apache Indian Tribe, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, the Colorado General Assembly and the Colorado Commission on Indian Affairs.

We are grateful to our elected officials for their bipartisan support of diverse educational opportunities in Colorado. We still have work to do to secure fair and sustainable support for the Native American Tuition Waiver program for future generations.

You can read more about efforts to preserve the Native American Tuition Waiver program at www.fortlewis.edu/tuitionwaiver.

Dene Thomas is the president of Fort Lewis College. Reach her at flcpresident@fortlewis.