Native tuition

The U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions took its business on the road this week when it held a hearing in Denver on a bill to help guarantee the continuation of tuition waivers for Native American students at certain higher education institutions – most notably Fort Lewis College.

The measure would do so by passing to the federal government some of the financial burden states carry in offering this waiver. Doing so reflects the extent to which circumstances have changed since the waivers began, while honoring their intent. It is the right move for Congress to make.

The Native American Indian Education Act of 2012 would have the federal government cover the cost of tuition at FLC for Native American students who are not residents of Colorado – a tab that the state currently covers. That arrangement was part of an agreement wherein the United States gave Colorado land to establish Fort Lewis College, in exchange for which the state agreed to extend tuition waivers to all Native American students. As the college, the state and the country have grown, that commitment has made more accessible the education offered at the institution to students from across the country. It has also burdened the state’s budget – a pinch that smarts all the more as coffers have dwindled in recent years. This equation, as the measure says, has created an inequity that the original land grant agreement neither anticipated nor accounted for: “The value of the Native American student tuition waiver benefits contributed by these colleges and the states that support them today far exceeds the value of the original grant of land and facilities.”

By passing the cost of out-of-state tuition for Native American students on to the federal government, much of the original balance of the agreement is restored. In doing so, the opportunity for native students to attend college free – at FLC or at the University of Minnesota, Morris, which has a similar program – is preserved. That is an important commitment to Native American communities and to education in general.

It is also supportive of the programs offered at the colleges affected by the measure, and the states that have ensured their growth and sustenance. As Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., a sponsor of the measure, said at Wednesday’s hearing, “In just the last 11 years, the Fort Lewis Native American Scholarship Fund has provided tuition waivers for 16,408 students from 46 states representing 269 tribes. FLC awards more undergraduate degrees to Native American students than any other four year institution in the nation.”

That is a significant investment that has brought no shortage of benefits to those students and tribes and states they represent. Colorado surely deserves help in ensuring that those numbers continue to grow.

Bennet’s measure and a similar one introduced in the U.S. House by Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, deserve full hearings and speedy passage. They are likely to receive neither – particularly in the House. That is unfortunate, but should not stop lawmakers from pushing the issue. There is only good to come from it.

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