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In Fairness
Tribal college leaders criticize proposal to fund nontribal institutions with 10 percent American Indian student enrollment.
By Charles Dervarics

Already facing a possible federal budget cut next year, the nation’s tribal colleges have major concerns about a new Senate plan to create a national funding stream for mainstream colleges and universities that enroll a modest percentage of American Indian students.

The plan from U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., would provide extra funding to any college and university — except tribal colleges — where American Indians account for at least 10 percent of student enrollment. The senator wants to include the plan in an upcoming Senate bill to renew the Higher Education Act.

Bingaman’s staff emphasize that the plan would not affect existing federal programs for tribally controlled colleges, which are based on federal trust lands and serve a large share of American Indians in higher education. But with the Bush administration proposing a 20 percent cut in tribal college funding, tribal college leaders say the Senate proposal is cause for alarm.

“Tribal colleges have serious concerns about this proposal, but the underlying issue is one of equity,” said Dr. David M. Gipp, president of United Tribes Technical College near Bismarck, N.D., in recent testimony before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

For the 34 U.S. colleges in the American Indian Higher Education Consortium — most of which are small institutions in remote, high-poverty areas — the issue is one of fairness.

“This is solely a political, and not race-based, distinction. Funding of tribal colleges and universities raises no affirmative action issues,” Gipp said. But the Bingaman plan would change that policy, providing extra race-based funding for institutions that overall may not have a large minority enrollment.

The new plan would set a different precedent on government funding of American Indian students, critics say.

While states aren’t obligated to support non-Native students attending tribal colleges, public colleges could receive two payments for serving American Indians — one from the new Bingaman proposal and another from state governments that provide aid for any enrolled student, whether or not they are American Indian.

“Many of these colleges [under the new plan] are still state-funded schools,” says Meg Goetz, the director of congressional relations for AIHEC.

Moreover, tribal colleges may only include members of federally recognized tribes in student counts that determine federal funding. But, Goetz says, under the Bingaman proposal, “Funding can go to students who may or may not be recognized as Indians by the federal government.”

Maria Najera, Bingaman’s deputy press secretary, says the plan is not meant to undermine tribal colleges.

“Senator Bingaman strongly supports adequate funding for tribal colleges,” she says. “The proposal does not divert funding from tribal colleges, nor is it designed to replace them. It is all new money, which would provide resources to nontribal institutions that serve large Native American student populations.”

She says that colleges eligible for the new funding include four New Mexico institutions: Eastern New Mexico University-Ruidoso, New Mexico State University-Grants, San Juan College and the University of New Mexico-Gallup. It is not known whether other colleges would qualify for
the funding.

Under the plan, eligible nontribal colleges would receive grants of at least $200,000 for activities such as curriculum development and academic instruction, faculty development, counseling, books and educational materials and academic tutoring, she said.

Bingaman will seek to include the proposal in a new HEA bill scheduled for unveiling soon, says Najera. There is no similar provision in the House.

Tribal colleges say the current budget environment is already a challenge, noting that  President Bush has proposed trimming tribal college funding from $23.6 million to $18.6 million.

“We know there’s only so much money” in the current budget, Goetz says.

Tribal colleges also receive funding under another statute, the Tribally Controlled College or University Act. But at $5,001 per documented American Indian student, that allotment is below the federally authorized level of $6,000. At the recent Senate hearing, AIHEC requested an increase to at least $8,000 per student.

The number of tribal colleges has increased four-fold since the government created the first tribal college assistance program in 1981. Gipp says many colleges fill community roles in areas such as adult education, child care and job training, despite limited funding.

“We are the most poorly funded institutions of higher education in the country,” he says.

–Charles Dervarics

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