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Tribal Colleges Fight To Retain Federal Funding

Tribal Colleges Fight To Retain Federal Funding
Unaffected by federal cuts, HBCUs and HSIs rally on behalf of tribal colleges. 
By Charles Dervarics

It may not receive the attention of Pell Grants or other financial aid issues, but one little-known provision of President Bush’s 2008 education budget is causing concern in many education circles —
a proposed 20 percent cut in the U.S. Department of Education’s tribal college program.

As a one-line item in a massive education budget, the $23.6 million initiative may get little visibility. But advocates warn that the plan to cut the initiative by $5 million will harm students and staff at the 31 eligible tribally controlled colleges and universities.

These colleges enroll large numbers of low-income students in remote locations generally underserved by higher education. Students also attend classes on decentralized campuses, created building by building with ongoing facility needs.

“These are definitely developing institutions,” says Meg Goetz, director of congressional relations at the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, or AIHEC, an organization for tribal colleges based in Alexandria, Va. Many of the colleges are relatively new to the nation’s higher education landscape, with the oldest institution less than 40 years old.

In addition, the tribal college community says it has received little information about why the Bush administration has singled it out for a reduction.

“We don’t know why the tribal college program was cut, and cut substantially,” says Goetz. The program is funded under Title III of the Higher Education Act, a section that provides aid to developing institutions and also supports historically Black colleges and universities.

Responding to a request from Diverse to discuss the funding cut, an Education Department spokesman referred to budget documents noting that Title III programs earned an unfavorable evaluation for “results not demonstrated.” This was largely due to “insufficient data” to evaluate program effectiveness against new performance targets, the department spokesman said.

However, most Title III programs were not singled out for cuts. The HBCU programs would receive a freeze, but no cut, in the president’s 2008 budget. Another Title III program for other developing institutions, such as community colleges, also would receive level funding.

In its budget, the Education Department did note that it has enough funds to support a new tribal college grant competition in fiscal year 2008, even with the reduced funding.

Tribal colleges are eligible for two types of grants under the department’s program: development grants to help meet pressing needs, and construction grants, which are available for only a small number of institutions and projects.

Meeting in Washington, D.C., in February, tribal college presidents appealed to congressional leaders to oppose the cutback.

Funding cuts would be “devastating” to tribal colleges, said Thomas Shortbull, president of Oglala Lakota College in Kyle, S.D. He said the college has received a $500,000 annual development grant to meet basic operating needs, particularly in technology. It also has a one-time,
$1.5 million grant to construct a residence hall for 12 students.

“The housing shortage on the reservations is dire,” Shortbull said. Students who live at home often reside in crowded, multi-family arrangements, giving them few places to study. Shortbull said the residence hall may help increase student retention and, in the long run, student graduation rates.

Other construction grants help colleges replace substandard buildings, many of which cannot be brought up to code, Goetz says. “It’s not worth renovating a building if it already has mold. It’s better to build a
new one.”

The Education Department’s Web site shows that recent tribal college grants also have funded construction of a library at the College of the Menominee Nation in Keshena, Wis., and a health and physical fitness facility at Salish Kootenai College in Pablo, Mont.

The tribal colleges aren’t fighting alone. In February, leaders at HBCUs and Hispanic-serving institutions signed on to a letter urging Congress to reject the proposed cut.

In a letter to the Congressional Black Caucus and caucuses for Hispanics and American Indians, presidents of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education and the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities joined AIHEC executive director Gerald Gipp in opposing the cut.

The letter, signed by Gipp, NAFEO President Lezli Baskerville and HACU President Antonio Flores, noted that tribal colleges depend greatly on federal funds, since they are located on federal lands and receive little or no state funding.

“While we applaud any effort to increase the maximum amount of Pell Grant awards to improve access to higher education for low-income students, to do so at the expense of federal support for the very institutions that disproportionately educate low-income, chronically underserved students is, in our judgment, terribly misguided,” the letter stated.

Neither HBCUs nor HSIs would receive increases in the president’s new budget. Support for HBCUs would remain at $296 million under the plan, while funding for HSIs would remain level at $95 million.

The president’s 2008 budget is now on Capitol Hill, where congressional budget and appropriations committees will hold hearings. The 2008 fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

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