Fort Lewis tuition waiver finds a supporter in the White House

Nighthorse Campbell: Nobody wants to wait until that train wreck happens

Joe Hanel/Durango Herald
Byron Tsabetsaye, president of the Fort Lewis College student government, listens to college president Dene Kay Thomas testify about the school’s Native American tuition waiver to the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions on Wednesday at a field hearing at the Colorado State Capitol in Denver. Enlarge photo

Joe Hanel/Durango Herald Byron Tsabetsaye, president of the Fort Lewis College student government, listens to college president Dene Kay Thomas testify about the school’s Native American tuition waiver to the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions on Wednesday at a field hearing at the Colorado State Capitol in Denver.

DENVER – Fort Lewis College gained support from the White House on Wednesday in its attempt to get the federal government to pick up the cost of its Native American tuition waiver.

The Obama Administration supports the idea in principle, said Bill Mendoza, director of the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education.

Mendoza, a Fort Lewis graduate, made the remark during a U.S. Senate field hearing at the Colorado State Capitol on a bill by Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo.

“We certainly support the principles of this bill, senator, and we’re going to do everything in our power to make sure that we’re all putting our heads together,” Mendoza said.

FLC offers free tuition to students from Native American tribes around the country, under the terms of a century-old contract between the state and the federal government that was forged when FLC was a boarding school for Native American youths.

Today, the state pays $12.8 million a year to cover the tuition waiver. Fort Lewis awards more degrees to Native Americans than any other college in the country, accounting for one in 10 of all degrees earned by Native Americans from 2006 to 2010.

The state pays the cost, but it has been growing every year, and it has caught the eye of legislators.

“If we don’t do something, we’re on an unsustainable course somewhere along the line. Nobody wants to wait until that train wreck happens,” said former Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, who now is a contract lobbyist for FLC.

Bennet has introduced two bills to shift the responsibility from the state to the federal government for out-of-state tuition for Native Americans. His most recent bill, S. 3504, also applies to the University of Minnesota-Morris, the only other college in the country with a similar program.

The bill got its first hearing Wednesday in Denver before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee. If a vote had been taken at the information-only hearing, the bill would have passed easily, because Bennet was the only senator in attendance.

Fort Lewis College President Dene Kay Thomas and student body president Byron Tsabetsaye also testified in favor of Bennet’s bill and the tuition waiver.

Tsabetsaye said without the waiver, many of his Native American friends would not be able to go to college.

“It would be the difference in my education,” Tsabetsaye said.

The bill does not remove Colorado’s obligation to pay for tuition, but it does offer federal dollars to help. Regardless of what happens in Washington, Colorado will not turn its back on its responsibility to pay for the waiver, said Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia. But the waiver is more than just a state program, he said.

“It’s a national one, with national benefits and national implications,” Garcia said.

Bennet said the hearing was an important milestone for the bill. Members of Congress from Colorado have been pushing for similar bills for three years, to no avail.

“Washington has been such a logjam for so many things,” Bennet said. “A lot of the time gets consumed and wasted by political games that are being played, and real business that needs to get done, like this piece of legislation, just falls away.”

Bennet hopes to be able to pass his bill this year, but Congress is not likely to vote on much legislation until after the election. Bennet said no one can make an accurate guess on how productive the rest of the year will be.

Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, introduced an identical bill in the House in 2011. It has not received a hearing, although Tipton is still pushing for one with House committee chairmen, said his spokesman, Josh Green.

“It would help everybody if we could get this through the Senate,” Bennet said.

jhanel@durangoherald.com

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