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Tribal Colleges’ Top Priority for Obama: ‘Full and Forward Funding’

As enrollment at tribal colleges spikes, American Indians are hoping the Obama administration will make good on campaign promises to increase funding.

From 1998 to 2001, Carrie Billy served as the first executive director of the White House Initiative on Tribal Colleges and Universities under the Clinton administration. During her tenure, TCUs received their largest ever federal funding increase as well as the establishment of the American Indian Teacher Corps Program, the Tribal College Technology Information Program and other important advances in tribal college funding and programming. She is a graduate of the University of Arizona and Georgetown University Law School.

Billy took over as head of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, which oversees 36 tribal colleges in the United States, last summer.

Diverse caught up with Billy before she was scheduled to travel to Turkey, where she planned to discuss possible collaborations between Turkish institutions and American tribal colleges

Q: What are your hopes for tribal colleges under the incoming Obama administration?

I’m excited about the new administration; it’s a positive change for Indian country, for the United States, for the world. There are new opportunities for us to refocus on academic- and culturally based education and native language restoration. Obama understands the importance of sustaining native culture, languages and traditions. We’re looking forward to working with him on that, in addition to economic development opportunities for Native Americans and higher education issues like increasing the number of Pell Grants.

Q: What is your biggest priority for tribal colleges?

Tribal colleges are so poorly funded. The number one priority is to achieve full and forward funding. Tribal colleges receive funding for their annual operation budgets from the federal government because they are located on trust lands. But the funds always arrive late – colleges don’t receive the funds until six or seven months after the academic year starts. We want to get forward funding (money in advance) in order to have more stability.

Q: Can you explain forward funding?

Forward funding means that the $65 million tribal colleges receive annually would come a year before. The interior department would have time to disperse the funds, so it would probably be July when the colleges would actually receive the funding — in time for when the school year starts in September. All other schools funded by the federal government, all of public K-12, already receive forward funding.

Q: How are schools impacted now by the absence of forward funding?

Some colleges have to take out high interest loans, cut classes, lay off faculty or employ workers who don’t know if they’ll get paid on time. Forward funding will stabilize not only colleges but also tribal economies because tribal colleges are large employers on reservations. For example, Oglala Lakota College in South Dakota employs more than 300 people; if employees don’t know if they’ll get paid it has a big impact.

Q: What is the best thing you see happening right now with tribal colleges?

One of the most exciting things I see right now is our students are younger than before. Among first-time entering students, the average age is 16-24. In the past it was 30 and up. Now more and more students are coming directly from high school; there are lots more opportunities now.

Q: How are tribal colleges and universities faring today?

Tribal colleges are continuing to grow. They’re young institutions; the oldest is only about 40 years old. They are also the most poorly funded in the country. We operate on only $5,400 per student; most other higher education institutions operate on $11,000 per student. 

Q: Are tribal colleges and universities growing?

It varies but some institutions are seeing a large growth. Tribal colleges reaching out to high schools are seeing the most dramatic increases in student enrollment. Also the number of tribal colleges is growing. As more tribal governments look beyond just access to education, but also to revitalizing the tribe’s culture and language, more tribes are looking to develop a college.

Q:  How are tribal colleges different from mainstream colleges?

They are completely different — just based on the core mission. The core mission of every tribal college is to sustain tribal culture and language. They approach education in a holistic way. They don’t just serve students, they also work with the whole family by bringing the entire family together for education and cultural activities.

Q:  Have you seen tribal colleges make real inroads to sustain native languages?

Yes, there are examples where the tribal language would have been lost if the college was not teaching it. Tribal colleges are doing more than any other institution to educate American Indians and help sustain tribal governments and traditions.

Q:  What other ways does tribal colleges’ relevancy play out?

Many tribal college students initially went to mainstream institutions but didn’t get the help or support they needed, so they chose to go to a tribal college instead. Some young people cannot leave the community because their family needs them there, so if there was no tribal college they would not get an education at all. The vast majority are on remote reservations. Diné College of the Navajo Nation in Arizona has eight campuses and the whole area they serve is almost the size of Connecticut. Tribal leaders started tribal colleges because the state’s community colleges didn’t serve the remote areas of many reservations. 

Q:  So they’re all located on reservations?

Yes, almost all of them.

Q:  What is your background and what drew you to this work?

I’m Navajo. I grew up in Arizona and then went to Georgetown University’s Law Center after graduating from the University of Arizona. I was on Capitol Hill so I got really interested in politics. After I got my law degree, I went back to Arizona and worked for a law firm, but I didn’t find it fulfilling.

Q:  Why wasn’t it fulfilling, what did you want to do?

I wanted to do something to help the Navajo and all native people, and realized I had the skills to do that so I went to work on Capitol Hill for Democratic New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman. It was the first time I worked on tribal college issues.

Q:  What did you do in the Senate on tribal issues?

I was the first director of the White House Initiative on Tribal Colleges and Universities established by (President) Clinton. It helped tribal colleges and universities to grow in every area. But since Clinton left office, we’ve been fighting just to maintain what we had when he was in office. Now with the incoming Obama administration, we’re looking toward building on what was established under Clinton, not just fighting for what we had.

Q:  Why did you leave the Hill?

I decided to leave the Senate because I decided I could make the largest term difference by working on one thing I was really passionate about — tribal college issues. I believe that for reservation-based Indians, tribal colleges are the best hope for a strong sustainable future. If we didn’t have tribal colleges our language, culture and economic stability would be lost.

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