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Fort Lewis College representatives testify before Congressional committee regarding Native American tuition waiver

Associated Students of Fort Lewis College President Byron Tsabetsaye, a member of the Navajo and Zuni tribes, shouldn’t have any reason to be nervous when he goes in for job interviews in the future, not after testifying at a Congressional field hearing on August 22. Byron was among a number of national, state, educational, and Native American leaders who spoke in support of U.S. Senate Bill 3504 entitled the “Native American Indian Education Act of 2012.”

“I grew up in the capital of the Navajo Reservation, a nation inside a nation where people strive to live [while] in widespread poverty and little opportunities,” Byron said. “It’s not easy to believe that in the year 2012 there are people that live in our country with no electricity and running water. It’s not comfortable to know that children have the capacity to dream big, but dream with limits due to lack of opportunity and exposure. It’s unsettling to witness such great potential dwindle in high school graduates that don’t have the resources to obtain a college education, even after surpassing the level of their parent’s education.”

Senate Bill 3504 aims to help Native American students achieve that great potential. S.3504, which is sponsored by U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, would offer federal financial assistance to Colorado and Minnesota in covering the cost of the Native American tuition waiver programs at Fort Lewis College and the University of Minnesota-Morris. Senator Bennet, a Democrat, is joined in his legislation by Representative Scott Tipton, a Republican, who has introduced a similar bill in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The Native American Tuition Waiver Program at Fort Lewis College was born more than a century ago when the federal government gave the state of Colorado over 6,000 acres of land near Hesperus, CO. The land had been home to a federal Indian boarding school and the transfer was agreed to by Colorado with the obligation that the land would be maintained as an institution of learning and that Native American students would be admitted free of tuition. What is today Fort Lewis College can trace its roots back to that agreement between the federal government and Colorado.

The tuition waiver program at FLC has succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations and grown significantly in the past 100 years. In just the last decade, Fort Lewis College has provided waivers for more than 16,000 Native American students from 46 states and 269 tribes. FLC also awards more bachelor’s degrees to Native Americans than any other four-year institution in the country.

This success has caused the tuition waiver program at FLC to evolve from a state program to a national program. Over 80 percent of Native American students currently enrolled at Fort Lewis College are not from Colorado. Therefore the majority of the cost of the tuition waiver program goes to cover the tuition of these out-of-state students who are likely to return to their home states after graduating.

“We now have a situation where what is of benefit to many is of a cost to only one,” said FLC President Dene Thomas at the hearing. “Colorado benefits, but even more, the country benefits, as societal benefits accrue from becoming more educated productive taxpaying citizens. Given the national benefits and the hundred years of support from only Colorado, it is time for the nation to support what has become an unintended unfunded federal mandate.”

The question of why should the tuition waiver programs at FLC and UMM be supported was also discussed at the hearing. The programs stem from treaty agreements between the federal government and various Native American tribes. The federal government took possession of parcels of land in exchange for offering an education to the tribes.

In both verbal and written testimony, John Echohawk, executive director of the Native American Rights Fund, explained that “The federal government has a trust responsibility to assist Indian students obtain higher education. Indians are among the poorest and least educated people in the United States so the need is great. Fort Lewis College has become a great educational resource for Indian students and the United States should assist the State of Colorado to maintain that valuable educational resource for Indians.”

“Our nation clearly needs to provide more opportunities for higher education for Native Americans as only 13 percent of Native American youth hold a baccalaureate degree compared to 30 percent of all youth,” said Sen. Bennet at the hearing. “Even in the recent recession the unemployment rate amongst those with a college degree never exceeded 4.5 percent. That is why our work here today is so important.”

The low educational attainment among Native American tribes is due in part to the fact that Native American students are perhaps the most underserved minority population in the country. The federal government has provided much more assistance to Hispanic and African American serving institutions over the years and very little to Native American serving schools. This has helped create a situation where, as Sen. Bennet stated, “Native Americans still face unemployment and poverty rates well above the national average.”

Statistics aside, perhaps it was Byron Tsabetsaye who best summed up what the Native American tuition waiver program means when he said, “I find comfort in knowing that at Fort Lewis College there is a huge opportunity for Native Americans to achieve a college education. I have no doubt that all Native American students at Fort Lewis College hold their education with a very high value, if not priceless.”

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