Montana Values Tribal Colleges—And May Back Them with Money

Montana Values Tribal Colleges—And May Back Them with Money, Indian Country Today Media Network, February 12, 2015


Montana’s seven tribal colleges serve more than 5,000 students, an estimated 339 of whom are not American Indian or Alaska Native and therefore are not eligible for the $5,850 the federal government provides annually to tribal colleges for each full-time-equivalent (FTE) AI/AN student.

This inequity, which applies to all tribal colleges and universities, means they must stretch their already bare bones budgets to pay the costs of educating non-AI/AN students. It is a significant burden.

Little Big Horn College President David Yarlott, Crow, says non-Native students choose to go to tribal colleges for a variety of reasons, among them proximity to home, access to a high quality education, low teacher-student ratios and low tuition costs. Twenty percent of students attending the nation’s 37 TCUs are non-Native, according to testimony presented by American Indian Higher Education Consortium President and CEO Carrie L. Billy before the U.S. House Committee on Appropriations in April.

Montana is one of only three states (the others are North Dakota and Arizona) that provide funding to tribal colleges to help defray the expense of educating non-beneficiary (i.e., non-AI/AN) students. On January 26, the Montana House Education Committee heard testimony regarding a bill introduced by Rep. Susan Webber, House District 16, that would grant a modest increase in the dollar amount the state gives TCUs for each FTE non-beneficiary student.

The legislation would provide an 8-percent increase in the amount of funding, raising the reimbursement to $3,280 per year per FTE student. Even with this increase, however, TCUs would receive only about half the support per student that the state’s three community colleges get. The state contributes $6,332 for each FTE community college student. So, a non-AI/AN student could choose to attend a community college or a tribal college, and the community college would get twice as much funding for that student as would a tribal college.

The bill would also clarify the language in Montana’s TCU statute to more accurately describe the funding program by changing the term “tribal college assistance” to “tribal college reimbursement.” Webber explained, “The payment is a reimbursement, not a handout.”

Montanans see some very good reasons for supporting TCUs. Rep. Bridget Smith, House District 31, tells ICTMN, “Fort Peck Community College [on the Assiniboine & Sioux Reservation] is the lifeblood of our community. Many social issues revolve around the college—drug, alcohol and tobacco education, early childhood education and the college offers certificates in truck driving, welding and other job training programs. It is the center of our community for both tribal and non-tribal residents.”

Laura John, Seneca/Blackfeet, state-tribal policy analyst at the Montana Budget Policy Center, testified that TCUs provide an affordable education that helps prepare a skilled workforce in the state. She also pointed out that since 2009, based on projections for 2017, the number of non-beneficiary students attending tribal colleges in the state will have increased 25 percent, while enrollment at community colleges will have decreased 14 percent over the same time period.

This inequity, said Salish Kootenai College President Robert DePoe III, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, meant that SKC must charge more tuition for non-beneficiary students than for AI/AN students. More funding from the state would help bring the tuition rates into parity.

DePoe noted that over 80 percent of the non-AI/AN students who attend the college graduate and find employment. More than 30 percent of the students at SKC are non-Native students, he said.

TCUs are open admission institutions, accepting any student who has a high school diploma or a GED. Billy told the U.S. House committee, “TCUs remain open to all students, Indian and non-Indian, believing that education in general and postsecondary education in particular is the catalyst for a better economic future for their regions.”

Several non-Native students testified at the Montana House Education Committee hearing, explaining their reasons for attending the TCUs, all of which are fully-accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities. Kayla Johnson, a tribal historical preservation major at SKC said, “The college truly cares about each and every student’s success.”

Sarah Green, a single mother attending Aaniiih Nakoda College because it was the only college close enough to home for her to have help with her daughter, said she was welcomed with open arms and would recommend the college to anyone because “of the quality of instruction and the kindness of faculty and other students.”

Some students, one an elementary education major at SKC and another a nursing major at ANC, told the subcommittee that attending a TCU gave them insight into the cultural diversity of their communities and that knowledge would help them better serve those communities in their professional work.

A second hearing on the proposed increased reimbursement, this one before the Joint Subcommittee on Education, was held January 30.

The bill passed the House Education Committee on February 4 with a vote of 13-2. On February 6, it passed second reading (which is the first full floor vote) 88-12. It has been referred to House Appropriations Committee, where it is scheduled for a hearing February 13.

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