While spending time with tribal college presidents, staff, and students and staff of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium on Capitol Hill recently, I learned some sobering facts about tribal college funding.
For instance, while the number of students attending tribal colleges has increased, the funding for schools has not. This means tribal colleges are operating at $549 less per Indian student than they were in fiscal year 2010. Not only that, but those 2010 funding levels are still less than 75% of the money that Congress authorized for tribal colleges under the Tribally Controlled Colleges and Universities Act of 1978. With very few exceptions, tribal colleges and universities are not eligible for any state financial support. This is one reason why federal funding is so important.
Tribal college administrators have always been good at stretching their limited budgets, finding ways to multitask, and figuring out ways to make ends meet. But should it always have to be this way?
Currently, the federal government funds tribal colleges at just over $5,000 per Indian student per year. This money benefits individual students, to be sure. But it also resonates throughout the entire community. As you will read in Sherrole Benton’s feature story, tribal colleges have direct economic impacts on their reservations and regions. In January 2011, United Tribes Technical College (UTTC, Bismarck, ND) released a report by Tom Katus of TKA Associates that details the tribal college’s economic impacts upon the communities of Bismarck and Mandan, ND. According to this report, UTTC’s total direct impact on the two communities was $31.8 million in 2010. Similar studies have been done at Sisseton Wahpeton College (SWC, Sisseton, SD) and Sitting Bull College (SBC, Fort Yates, ND). All tribal colleges play an important economic role in their communities, employing tribal members and serving as hubs for education and training.
But there is more to the story than how construction stimulates local business or faculty wages spread across a community. There are other considerations as well. How often does one student inspire a relative or friend to also strive for higher education? Students also revitalize their native languages, conduct scientific research on their reservations, and work side-by-side with their elders to preserve traditional culture. And, of course, many of them work to better their own communities, putting their nursing, environmental science, social work, or media arts degrees to good use at home.
Tribal colleges also nurture emerging leaders.
While waiting outside an office in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill, I had the chance to catch up for a few moments with Little Big Horn College President Dr. David Yarlott. He was accompanying three students and two staff members to a meeting with a member of Montana’s congressional delegation. He said he would be there for support, but he wanted the staff and students to take the lead during the meeting. His desire to mentor staff and students, to encourage others to lead, seems an integral part of Yarlott’s own leadership style—a style readers can learn more about in a profile about Yarlott in this issue of TCJ.
Just before ducking into the office, Yarlott smiled, recalling how nervous he was during his own first meetings as a tribal college president on Capitol Hill. At the time, former presidents Joe McDonald and Jim Shanley had faith in him to do well—probably, he says, because he once had been a student himself at Little Big Horn College.
Indeed, the passion and power of tribal college students was evident on Capitol Hill those few days. Students from many tribal colleges accompanied administrators to meetings with congressional delegates. They laid out the realities of reservation life and shared stories of how education has changed their lives and that of their families. Though some of their stories were serious and somber, all were hopeful. Some were even funny; I still smile thinking of how the search for a functioning machine led one woman into the Nez Perce, Idaho campus of Northwest Indian College—which she and her son now attend.
Students worked hard to help members of Congress and their staff understand the importance of funding tribal colleges. Two Haskell Indian Nations University students, Joel Hernandez (Diné) and Paulette Blanchard (Absentee Shawnee), hoofed all over Capitol Hill, popping into offices, leaving behind packets of information, and even talking to one member of Congress as he was grabbing lunch in the cafeteria. In the face of discouraging budget news and even blatantly offensive comments, the two students maintained their self-respect and their enthusiasm. Their energy and their passion were inspirational—a clear reminder of what is at stake when it comes to maintaining and strengthening tribal colleges.
Within this issue, TCJ’s writers and contributors share best practices for procuring grant funding, building new programs, and working collaboratively with federal agencies, such as the National Science Foundation, which has supported capacity building and education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics through its decade-old Tribal Colleges and Universities Program (TCUP).
This issue also features a Voices column from Richard Williams who, in January, announced he is leaving the American Indian College Fund where he has been president and CEO since 1997. During Williams’ tenure, The Fund raised more than $210 million in donations for scholarships for American Indian students. If it’s difficult to grasp the enormity of the impact those scholarships have had upon students across Indian Country, it’s even more difficult to gauge the impact that Williams himself has had upon students, educators, funders, colleagues, and friends. Everyone at TCJ would like to thank Williams for his groundbreaking work, and also for his generosity, humor, and friendship.
Laura Paskus is the managing editor of Tribal College Journal.