Advancing Tribal Students and Sovereign Nations: AIHEC’s Vision for the Tribal College Movement

Volume 28, No. 2 - Winter 2016
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“We’re not trying to get ahead of anyone…we’re trying to catch up.” Mickey Parrish, president of Bay Mills Community College, addresses the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. Photo by Heater Heatley

To understand the work of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC), it is important to understand where the organization came from, and why it was established. In the early 1970s, the first six tribally controlled colleges recognized that, despite geographic distances and different cultural groundings, they had many opportunities and challenges in common. In 1973, they came together and created AIHEC to provide a support network and to advocate for federal policies beneficial to American Indian/tribal higher education. Before the tribal colleges, postsecondary education for the majority of American Indians and Alaska Natives living on isolated reservations was virtually nonexistent.

In 1978, just five years after being formally launched, AIHEC succeeded in getting legislation enacted authorizing annual federal funding for the day-to-day institutional operations of the tribal colleges. Although the effort took only five years, which is relatively quick in terms of securing congressional action, it was not without considerable challenges. The original legislation introduced by Senator James Abourezk (D-SD) was opposed by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, as well as many members of Congress. Ultimately, a compromise was reached through support from Navajo education leaders, who agreed to amend the Navajo Community College Act to include a new title for other tribally chartered institutions of higher education.

Located in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, AIHEC today has grown to 37 tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) operating more than 75 campuses in 16 states. TCUs serve 160,000 American Indians, Alaska Natives, and other rural Americans yearly through academic and community programs. They are accredited public institutions of higher education, created and chartered by their tribal governments or the federal government for a specific purpose: to provide high-quality higher education opportunities to American Indians and Alaska Natives through programs that are locally and culturally based, holistic, and nurturing. TCU students represent well over half of all federally recognized tribes, and about 15% of the students enrolled at the TCUs are non-Indian.


Tribal colleges are important constituents in their respective states and districts. Here, Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM) listens intently to Theresa Hatathlie of Diné College. Photo by Felicia Salazar

Advocacy is a shared endeavor, a shared responsibility. AIHEC is the collective voice of the nation’s TCUs, which maximizes their impact. Through AIHEC—aided by our advocacy partner, Washington Partners, LLC—TCUs work together to influence policy and build programs in all facets of higher education. As members of AIHEC, TCUs also receive valuable technical assistance in key areas; network with one another, federal agencies, other institutions of higher education, national organizations, and potential partners; mentor new and developing tribal colleges; plan new initiatives to bolster innovation; and address evolving challenges and areas of need.

Through advocacy, research, and program initiatives, AIHEC provides leadership and influences public policy on tribal higher education and other issues that affect TCUs. Why do we pursue this work? AIHEC’s vision statement makes it clear: to strengthen sovereign nations through excellence in TRIBAL higher education. And stories like those shared by Floris White Bull bring this vision to life. We are working for her and all TCU students as they strive to transform Indian Country.

During our recent summer meeting, AIHEC’s board of directors adopted a five-year, five-point plan that will serve as our guiding document as we continue to advocate on behalf of TCUs, their students, and their communities. The five points that come alive in the plan are: sustaining, educating, innovating, engaging, and honoring.

Advocacy is a key focus in each of the five areas. Sustaining TCUs is a never-ending and constantly changing advocacy effort— it’s all about being prepared to seize the opportunity at the right moment, no matter how long it takes to get to that moment. The next several months will be exciting. Once the nation’s voters have spoken in November, it will be AIHEC’s responsibility to acquaint a new administration and new members of Congress with the history, hope, and opportunity of the TCUs. We will begin to develop long-term relations with new policymakers while maintaining our ongoing relationships with those returning for the 115th Congress.

Because of treaty obligations and the federal trust relationship, the primary responsibility for TCU funding and support should and does rest with the federal government. Our three primary goals relate directly to this federal responsibility. First, AIHEC seeks to secure funding for TCU operations at the fully authorized level, which Congress sets, reconsiders, and reauthorizes every four to five years in conjunction with the Higher Education Act of 1965. Currently, the majority of TCUs receive approximately $7,210 per Indian student annually, yet the authorized level is $8,000 per Indian student, with no funding for non-Indian students. The Tribally Controlled Colleges and Universities Assistance Act defines an Indian student as an enrolled member of a federally recognized Indian tribe or the biological child of such an enrolled member.


Tribal college students are an indispensable part of AIHEC’s advocacy efforts on Capitol Hill. Photo by Heater Heatley

Second, AIHEC seeks equitable funding for the TCUs as members of the nation’s great land-grant system, which includes three types of land-grant institutions: 1862 institutions (colleges and universities in states and territories); 1890 institutions (18 historically black colleges and universities); and 1994 institutions (34 TCUs). To illustrate the inequity that TCUs face, in fiscal year 2016, 1862s and 1890s received $243.7 million and $54.2 million, respectively, for agriculture-related research. In comparison, the 1994s received only $1.8 million. Extension programs tell the same story: Congress appropriated $476 million for extension activities, with the 1862s and 1890s receiving $300 million and $46 million, respectively, in formula-driven extension funds. The 1994s, by contrast, share $4.45 million in competitively awarded grants. The 1862s and 1890s also have an additional $85.5 million in competitive grants available to them, which the 1994s are prohibited by law from accessing. These stark inequities cannot be justified or allowed to continue. The first Americans, last to join the nation’s land-grant family, deserve parity.

Third, AIHEC seeks the return of a freestanding executive order on tribal colleges and universities to address the federal trust responsibility and focus expressly on the unique needs and challenges of tribal institutions of higher education. Both former presidents William J. Clinton and George W. Bush signed executive orders on TCUs which significantly expanded federal opportunities for our colleges. However, President Obama elected to combine all Indian education into a single effort and issued an executive order covering pre-K through college Native education, which had a negative impact on TCU and AIHEC efforts to strengthen existing and to develop new relationships with federal agencies. Because the issues of postsecondary education—including financing, research, governance, location/transportation, and even child care—are quite different from pre-K and K-12 education, we believe a separate TCU executive order is needed.

We will begin our work toward achieving these goals even before the new president is sworn into office. Working with the new administration’s transition team, we will seek to secure as many of the TCUs’ priorities as we can in the president’s first budget, which he or she will submit to the new Congress in early 2017. Eight years ago, during the first year of President Obama’s administration, this is exactly how AIHEC was able to finally secure an additional $50 million to transition TCU operating grants, authorized under the Tribally Controlled Colleges and Universities Assistance Act, from the federal fiscal calendar (beginning October 1) to an academic year schedule (beginning July 1). For more than a decade, AIHEC worked to secure this funding, which enables TCUs to prepare their budgets for the upcoming academic year and begin the fall semester with basic operations funding in hand. Prior to this transition, also known as forward funding, the TCUs often had to wait until well into the first semester and sometimes longer before Congress had completed its work on federal appropriations and the administration made this funding available.

In advocacy, we hear the word “no” on a regular basis. But we do not give up. We stay focused on our very clear goal or goals; and we continue to hone our arguments, rally our supporters and champions, and persevere. When we do achieve that long-sought “yes,” it is all the more satisfying.

In addition to being prepared to seize opportunities, it is important to work with as many people as possible and to build a reputation for being fair and trustworthy. Currently, many people are worried about the outcome of the upcoming presidential election, fearing that it could be too liberal or too conservative. We too have concerns, but AIHEC knows that the only constant in Washington, DC is change. We do not fret the election outcome or a change in the majority in Congress as much as some others might because we have always worked in a bipartisan manner. Since we have always sought both Republican and Democratic supporters in our advocacy efforts, our challenge will likely continue to be not with whom we are working, but in getting all sides to work together. In this respect, Washington has not changed, so flexibility is important.

Perhaps most important in advocacy is the ability to tell your story well (and quickly) and to know what you want or need. To tell our story and advocate our goals, we get help from TCU presidents, faculty and staff, and most important, TCU students. In our years of working on behalf of TCUs, we have learned that data is critically important, but we also must remember to celebrate our successes, acknowledge the people who worked to get us where we are, and to share our stories. Our students and their personal stories of challenge and accomplishment are invaluable in making the case for increased federal investment in TCUs.

Each year in early February, AIHEC conducts its winter meeting in Washington, DC. TCU students and presidents have a chance to meet with their congressional delegation and share their stories with congressmen, senators, and congressional staff. Students talk movingly about their challenges and successes, and the impermeable position of TCUs in their communities. Since the massive economic downturn in 2008, advocating for federal funding for any cause has become exponentially more difficult. Federal funding is limited and an increasing number of groups and causes are vying for each dollar. Knowing that our students and their compelling stories could make a solid difference in engaging congressional offices in advancing the TCUs’ requests and concerns, we conduct webinars and workshops for the students to better prepare them for their Capitol Hill office visits. Throughout the rest of the year, we hear from congressional staff reiterating the students’ stories that clearly moved them.

American Indian issues, including TCU issues, are not consigned to either the Republicans or the Democrats, and while the maxim “All Politics is Local” remains true, it is equally true that support of American Indians and Alaska Natives is a national responsibility. Many of the members of Congress who represent TCUs are stalwart champions, but others have yet to be convinced of the true value a federal investment in our unique, communityengaged institutions brings to their state and district. This is particularly troublesome in the U.S. House of Representatives, where representation is based on the population of each state. Although all states, irrespective of size or population, have two U.S. Senators each, many of the states that are home to TCUs have only a single at-large member in the House. Here again, our students’ compelling stories can help in engaging other members of Congress and their staffs in raising the profile of TCUs and advancing our efforts. In 2015, AIHEC convened a House staff briefing as part of our annual winter meeting to highlight some of the TCU students and their inspiring stories, concentrating on congressional staff who are interested in Native issues but who may not have a TCU in their district. The briefing was well attended, but when we held a similar briefing the following year, the room was packed with more than three times the staff who attended the prior year. Word of these remarkable students has spread and generated increased interest in the TCUs.

It is important not to get discouraged; successful advocacy is a long process. When you think that all is lost, that you are not a large enough constituency, or that your efforts are in vain, remember the words of Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

 Carrie Billy, J.D. (Diné), is the president and CEO of AIHEC. Meg Goetz is AIHEC’s vice president of advocacy.

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