Congress Cuts Per-Student Funding at Tribal Colleges

Feb 15th, 1999 | By | Category: 10-3: Distance Education, Tribal College News

Despite the first federal budget surplus in decades, the tribal colleges will receive less money per student than last year. Under the new budget for fiscal year 1999, tribal colleges will receive just $2,964 per student in fiscal year 1999, compared with $3,043 per student a year ago. The Core Operational Funding under the Tribally Controlled Colleges and Universities Act provides for the colleges’ essential operations, including faculty salaries, curriculum, and building maintenance.

In the appropriations process, tribal colleges are forced to compete with other Indian programs. Indian education is pitted against Indian immunizations, and the federal surplus is irrelevant to the discussion. In raw dollar terms, the tribal colleges as a whole received a slight increase, from $28.8 million to $30.2 million. However, the per student funding dropped as a result of a seven percent increase in tribal colleges’ enrollment and the addition of Medicine Creek Tribal College. (Although eligible for federal funding under this law, Medicine Creek is not yet a member of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium–AIHEC.) The Clinton Administration had requested $34.3 million for the tribal colleges’ core funding, and several senators lobbied unsuccessfully for more funding, including Conrad Burns (R-MT), Byron Dorgan (D-ND), and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD). The problem can be expected to worsen as tribal college enrollments continue to increase and new tribal colleges develop.

Tribal colleges already operate on bare-bones budgets. “We’re losing ground from an already precarious position. The funding gap between tribal colleges and mainstream schools is continuing to widen,” said Dr. Carty Monette, president of Turtle Mountain Community College in North Dakota. “Both President Clinton and Congress take credit for caring about education, but we have been passed over.”

“We are facing terrible choices,” said Dr. Janine Pease-Pretty on Top, president of Little Big Horn College in Montana and of the consortium of tribal colleges. The presidents don’t find out until the end of October how much money they have to run their colleges for the current school year. “It becomes a question of whether to cancel summer school, lay off faculty, or eliminate entire courses of study.” Her college had to impose a salary freeze two years ago, forcing people to continue to work at “missionary wages.” Funding instability threatens the accreditation standing of several of the colleges. The American Indian colleges are certified under the same standards as “mainstream” colleges.

The $2,964 provided to tribal colleges this year compares with $4,600 per student at other community colleges. Tribal colleges have never been funded at levels comparable with “mainstream” community colleges, let alone universities. Although they serve both Indian and non-Indian students in their communities, they are not state institutions and do not receive state funding in most cases. Consequently, they are dependent upon federal funding, which supports only Indian students, for their core operations. This is supplemented by limited tribal funding and grants from private foundations.

Congress has never come close to providing the funding that it authorized for tribal colleges–$6,000 per student. As other colleges and universities’ budgets increase, the per-student funding for tribal colleges has increased only $133 since 1981, meaning that it has decreased substantially due to inflation (TCJ, Vol.9, N. 1, pages 39-43). The core funding is part of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs budget and funds 25 of the 32 institutions in AIHEC. Congress provided the same funding as last year for two other AIHEC members–the Institute of American Indian Arts ($4.25 million) and the United Tribes Technical College ($2.3 million). Diné College received a slight increase to $7.44 million ($4,808 per student).

The federal budget contained some good news for the tribal colleges. A new section of the Higher Education Act (Sec. 316) provides Department of Education grants for strengthening tribal colleges. Although President Clinton had asked for $5 million for the tribal colleges, Congress decided instead to allocate $3 million for the tribal colleges in the continental United States (Sec. 316) and $3 million for the universities and colleges that serve Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians. (Sec. 317). Besides being lower than the Department of Interior funding, the new grant program is competitive and can never substitute for the core funding.

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