Scholarly Commentary –FLC Continues its Struggles to Preserve Native Tuition Waiver

Navajo Tribe's Vice President Ben Shelly.    Photo By: Jerry McBride Durango Herald

Navajo Tribe's Vice President Ben Shelly. Photo By: Jerry McBride Durango Herald


Last of a Three-part seriesBy Asa Washines

The College’s service to Native American students goes back to 1911, when, as a condition of accepting the thousands of acres of land in Hesperus, Colorado, the State agreed to establish an institute of learning, and that all Native American students would, at all times, be admitted to the institution tuition free. Fort Lewis College is very proud of the education it offers to all students, and of the service it provides to the State of Colorado.

-Opening statement from Fort Lewis College “Talking Points” Document

        This is the third article regarding my series devoted to the tuition waiver issue at FLC.  In the first article, I examined the history of the tuition wavier.  In the second article, I looked at the 1971 legislative report on “Indian Enrollment issues at Fort Lewis College”.  This article will close out the series by looking at the 2010 legislative bill HB10-1067.

        Higher education has become an important tool for self-determination as tribal nations realize the need for more educated enrolled members to gradually take over tribal programs.  These students have the knowledge of western education and the capability to maintain cultural integrity as they come home to support specific tribal programs, as well contribute to substantial tribal development, even becoming entrepreneurs.  As of winter 2010, FLC has 749 enrolled Native students coming from over 120 federally recognized tribes, with many of the students specializing in the business and science fields. 

        In essence, FLC has become a the HUB of Indian education and according to FLC administration; FLC ranks 1st in the nation among institutions of higher education in the number of baccalaureate degrees awarded to Native American students.  FLC ranks first in the nation in the number of Science, Engineering, Technology, and Math (STEM) baccalaureate degrees awarded to Native American students.  According to the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, FLC ranks 5th in the nation among institutions of higher education in percent of full time Native American undergraduates enrolled in college, and FLC is Colorado’s only Native American Serving, Non-Tribal College, as defined by the U.S. Department of Education. 

        With numbers like that, it is hard for me and other Indian students to understand the reasons why FLC was specifically singled out for additional budget cuts during the 2010 legislative session.  Another point that needs to be considered is FLC is not allowed to raise the out of state tuition because supposedly the state appropriations for the college would increase when other state colleges and universities have higher tuition rates.

        Issues always reemerge, and it seems that law makers always seem to ask why Colorado tax payers should fund tuition for Native American students who have non-resident status?  Well, the foundation is based on the 1910 Congressional agreement between the federal government and the state of Colorado.  It has allowed tribes become more self-sufficient and contribute to the state of Colorado as future residents for almost 100 years. 

        In the 2010 legislative session, HB10-1067 was introduced by the Department of Higher Education which wanted to have addition cuts aimed at FLC because of the tuition waiver, or as a way to start the justification to reduce the state’s expenses.  Approximately 53% of FLC’s total non-resident population receives the tuition waiver. From FY04-05 to FY10-11 the General Fund amount for the tuition waiver has increased from $6,477,140 to $10,726,065. 

        Well, these numbers are from 2004 through 2010 and of course as time progresses, student enrollment occurs.  Like any institution, schools aim for an enrollment number which the school can sufficiently handle.  The numbers the Department of Education provided are out of context and can easily be distorted in political debates.  In this case, the state of Colorado was looking for a way to cut financial obligations to FLC.  

        For a clearer understanding of what HB10-1067 would have done, individuals must look at the source of funding FLC receives.  If the legislative bill passed, HB 10-1067 would change the reimbursement for Native American students from tuition.  This change would have permanently reduced Fort Lewis College’s $41 million General Fund budget by approximately $1.8 million, according to FLC administration.  In addition, when compared with peer institutions in other states, Fort Lewis College is funded at approximately 68.7% of its peer average.  Peer average is the average of other state colleges and universities.

        This funding level ranks in the middle of all Colorado institutions of higher education – and INCLUDES the Native American Funding, according to FLC administration.  What supports of the college must realize is the holistic impact this would have on FLC, in basic terms more budget cuts, which could have affected academic affairs directly. 

        What prevented this bill from going into law was; the FLC administration, and FLC Students, Indian and non-Indian.  This was the start of the “FLC Students against HB10-1067” campaign.  This campaign was a multi-faucet grassroots movement that included mostly students of the college.  Initially, the school wasn’t even consulted on the emergence of the bill.  But when the newspapers ran the story, both administration and students were not shocked.  In 1956, the Colorado Commission on Higher Education was establish to meet informally to consider matters related to higher education, and to hold meetings on a rotating basis between all colleges and universities in the state.  It is this portion where consultation would occur, but the CCHE has not held a meeting on FLC campus in the last four years.

       WaiverNACMtg But because FLC students are not new to controversy, the students rallied and organized very quickly against HB10-1067.  This grassroots movement was sustained by the power of the pupil.  When news and rumors first broke about the bill, Sunday January 17, 2010 (as I traveled back from a Round Dance in Shiprock, NM), that a state sponsored legislative bill aimed specifically at the tuition waiver, I was in disbelief. 

     An Ad Hoc committee was established between some of the staff and facility concerning this legislative issue, this committee talked about these cuts earlier in the fall.  The committee took precautions and created a list of supporters and allies of FLC, one of the prominent contacts included NARF, NCAI, and former Senator Nighthorse Campbell to name a few, along with the thousands of alumni.

        It was the next couple days starting Monday night which the students mobilized, an awesome force which has the potential to change this new tactic aimed at the FLC tuition waiver and FLC appropriations.  Student leaders met with school administration to figure out the best approach to show the public how unified we were.  Students expressed the role they wanted when dealing with legislative affairs and how they should be used during the sub-committee meeting, if it came to that point.  In case a press conference were to take place at the state capital, student organizers were lining up a list of speakers that included ASFLC President, FLC students, Vice President of the Navajo Nation Ben Shelly, and other prominent FLC alumni and supporters of Indian education.

        One of the first public meetings took place at the Native American Center on the FLC campus, around noon on that Wednesday January 20, 2010.  It was “Standing Room Only” as students, school administration, community members, and other concerned entitles were in attendance.  This meeting was to explain what exactly the bills intention was and the plan to defeat HB10-1067.  One of the school’s administrators helped tried to explain and clarify the college’s position versus the bill’s sponsor.  Of this, two things occurred; one, everybody realized this was a budget cut aimed specifically at FLC.  Two, this was a state sponsored legislation bill specifically aimed at the tuition waiver. 

        The next step was to organize and how to achieve a strong media presence.  The students used the internet to create a social networking that combined all available resources from all parts of Indian Country.  FLC received good press coverage, this included the Durango Herald, the Denver Post, Indian Country Today, and other news media outlets, and additionally students had created a press release which reiterated talking points against the legislation, “We the students feel Fort Lewis College should not be singled out for higher education budget cuts because the college is upholding the Sacred Trust”.

        At one point, the vice president of finance gave student leaders assurances that if the bill went into sub-committee hearings, the school would fund room and board for all students who wanted to attend.  Now, initially I was all for this, but it sounds too good to be true, and how does one plan for such an event.  The role I played was logistics, and I was frantically calling around Denver looking for lodging for at least 300 students who wanted to rally against the bill.  Possible, yes, if given enough time, such arrangements could be made, but the time frame I was given was 2-3 days, since the bill was supposed to go into committee hearing on Monday January 25, 2010.  

        Details included traveling through Wolf Creek Pass to get to Denver, getting permits to hold a rally on the state capital, transportation to and from the capital once in Denver, parking at the capital, times to hold a press conference prior to the sub-committee meeting (which by itself is a handful), finding lodging and feeding the students, and looking for a way to pay for it all!  There was lots of support for the cause and the things we were doing as students, but logistically, planning for this was a nightmare.

        Meanwhile, a letter-writing campaign took place as students wrote a template to the various tribal governments, explaining the impact this bill would have.  What was more impressive was the solidarity of the letters.  Students were sending the same message to the many different tribal leaders.

“The State of Colorado, through Fort Lewis College, is required by federal law to admit all qualified Native American students – regardless of residency. However, any reduction in funding to the Native American program will have a severe negative impact on all students”.  This was a short sample of what different tribal leaders were going to receive.

        In all, student leaders organized into various positions that included: logistics for travel into Denver, communicating with other colleges and universities for additional support, contacting congressmen and senators from Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona, contacting news and print media, contacting different tribal governments, contacting other prominent supports of FLC and Indian education.

        The organization which transpired in four days was enough for the supporters of the bill to reconsider their position and an apology was announced late Thursday night because of the negative press she received.  “It would be fair to say that the bill will be scrapped in its current form,” said Rep. Karen Middleton, D-Aurora, sponsor of House Bill 1067.  According to the Durango Herald, she said her goal was to “fix a budget crisis but was persuaded to rethink her bill after its intent became “twisted” by the news media.”

        All this happen less than week from Sunday night, January 17, 2010 through Thursday night January 21, 2010, when the bill was defeated.  The power of the pupil can only be measured on occasions like this one.  After this state sponsored bill was defeated by the student, who now has become more vigilant on this matter, I would suggest the state legislator be more cognizant of what bill’s they sponsor.  Who knows the next time this sleeping giant will reemerge, only the state legislator can tell.

For Further reading:

Fact Sheet:  Fort Lewis College—Concerns with           H.B. 10-1067 Native American Tuition Waiver            Program

Fact Sheet: State of Colorado—House Bill 1067:        “Concerning the Ft. Lewis College Native      American Tuition Waiver Program”

Student Press Release January 20, 2010: Fort Lewis   College Student Concerns with H.B. 10-1067

Power Point December 2009: Fort Lewis College          Native American Tuition Waiver    


Navajo Tribe's Vice President Ben Shelly.    Photo By: Jerry McBride Durango Herald

Navajo Tribe's Vice President Ben Shelly. Photo By: Jerry McBride Durango Herald

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