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Michigan Schools on Hook for Native American Tuition Program

LANSING, Mich. ― Michigan’s public colleges and universities are on the hook for millions of dollars each year because a program that provides free tuition to Native American students isn’t fully funded.

Some say the state isn’t fully honoring a promise made more than 80 years ago when it pledged to put Native American students through college in return for tribes giving up land so Central Michigan University could expand, The Detroit News reported.

University officials and Native American leaders want lawmakers to fully fund the Michigan Indian Tuition Waiver program that serves more than 1,000 students each year and has survived attempts in the legislature to abolish it since it was enacted in 1976.

“When Native Americans go to college, they are gainfully employed, less reliant on public services,” said Aaron Payment, chairman of the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians.

Last year, the state’s 15 public universities had to spend more than $5.2 million to subsidize tuition for Native American students because the state allocated only $3.3 million for the $8.5 million program, the newspaper reported. According to the schools, the funding gap puts an unfair burden on them and hurts efforts to help Native Americans advance.

“It creates this peculiar situation where it is not advantageous for us to recruit native students when we live in the densest Native American population in all of Michigan,” said Thomas Pleger, president of Lake State Superior State University.

In 2014, the program cost more than $750,000 at the Upper Peninsula school, but the university is set to get just more than $400,000 from the state this year for that purpose.

The roots of Michigan’s program date to 1934, when Native Americans agreed to shut down a boarding school in Mount Pleasant so that Central Michigan University could expand, Payment said. More than 40 years passed, however, until the tuition waiver was put into state law.

In the past 10 years, state lawmakers twice increased appropriations for the program, but neither increase was enough to close the gap.

State Rep. Jeff Irwin, a Democrat from Ann Arbor who has Ojibwe ancestors, offered an amendment during the last budget cycle to fully fund the program. Irwin, a member of the House appropriations subcommittee for higher education, has vowed to try again.

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