Cuts to federal funding for tribal colleges and universities due to the sequester mean more than fewer classes and increased teaching loads to the people charged with fulfilling the mission and promise of these schools. “Tribal colleges play a key role in tribal nation-building efforts. We strive to build tribal nations by building people. It’s not just about funding—TCUs are deeply connected to tribal communities and tribal nations. These cuts reflect on the promise of the government to partner with TCUs to provide education” to American Indians, says Northwest Indian College President Justin Guillory.
Diné College President Maggie George concurs. “For many people, this is the only opportunity they have for higher education…. We’re the only game in town.”
Established in 1968, Diné College was the first tribally controlled community college in the U.S. The college serves 2,500 students at eight sites in Arizona and New Mexico. Its core operations are funded through Title II of the Tribally Controlled College or University Assistance Act of 1978.
Title I of that act provides funding for other eligible TCUs through a formula based on the number of Indian students enrolled, the “Indian student count” or ISC. Title III of the act provides matching funds for endowment grants. Other federal sources of funding include authorizations for facilities renovation and technical assistance and Title III of the Higher Education Act. A major source is competitive grants offered by federal agencies such as NASA, the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of Agriculture, to name just a few. Private funding from philanthropic and corporate organizations also plays a part. States are not required to fund tribal colleges and usually do not, but that is changing in some places.
Funding for tribal colleges is complex and differs from school to school, but in general TCU funding relies heavily on the federal government and all of that funding is being reduced by the sequester. “We’re already operating on limited funds,” says George. “We’re creative in what we do and make our dollars stretch.” But these cuts will require a big stretch.
Fort Peck Community College in Roosevelt, Montana gets 90 percent of its $11-million operating budget from federal sources and could end up losing more than 10 percent of that, according to the college’s grants manager Mark Sansaver. A similar situation exists at Northwest Indian College in Bellingham, Washington where $900,000 will likely be cut from the college’s $8 million budget, a loss of more than 11 percent. Other TCUs face cuts in the five-percent to six-percent range.
Northwest Indian College has taken to heart the maxim, “Never let a good crisis go to waste,” says Guillory, quoting Chicago Mayor and former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel quoting former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Emanuel added, “And what I mean by that: it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”
“This is an opportunity to refocus on our mission and our priorities. The highest is students’ success and being a place for Native American students to reach their educational dreams,” explains Guillory.
President David Yarlott of Little Big Horn College in Crow Agency, Montana, has the same approach: “We’re looking for ways to minimize the impact. Our priority is students. We’re working out what is necessary versus what is non-essential.”
Enrollment, however, is not up for discussion, say several college officials, including Laurel Vermillion, president of Sitting Bull College in Fort Yates, North Dakota. There will be “no cuts in enrollment,” he declares. “We want to expand…. We are working on a firefighter program and developing a certificate for that, as well as a program on oil drilling. These are courses we will offer to students in an effort to increase enrollment.”
At Sitting Bull College, a 5.3-percent cut will reduce this year’s budget by $250,000. “We’re looking at how we will make that up. The director of our $100,000 research development office resigned two months ago. We haven’t filled that position, and will not fill it. Those responsibilities will fall on me and my assistant. We’ll also cut down on adjunct people and ask faculty to teach more.”
United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, North Dakota, with an enrollment of 1,300, is taking a similar approach as it faces cuts totaling 5.2 percent this year, says President David M. Gipp. “We’ve held back on spending for supplies and equipment and have not been filling open positions. We need to try to keep in place campus security, transportation, classrooms and teachers and to assure students continue to be funded through their Pell grants, scholarships and longer-term loans.” Gipp notes that funding for the campus clinic, run by the Indian Health Service, will be cut 9.2 percent. “We’ll see an increase in health disparities because of that.”
The state of North Dakota, however, has offered to help. “The state has passed legislation that will offer each of five tribal colleges (UTTC, Spirit Lake, Fort Berthold, Standing River and Turtle Mountain) $1 million each over two years in workforce training funds. This is the first time the state has provided this to tribal institutions,” says Gipp.
Little Big Horn College, which has an enrollment of 350 this year, will lose at least $350,000 in federal funds. They are looking at four-day work-weeks from June through August. “At least that will cut down on utility costs,” says Yarlott. “And we’re asking our operational staff, and general fund employees to take 80 hours off work without pay this summer.”
George says Diné College’s total budget will be cut 5.5 percent. The college, which relies on the federal government for 85 percent of its funding, grants mostly two-year associate’s degrees and sends students on to four-year institutions. It has one baccalaureate degree program and was looking into a second, “but that will be put on hold,” he says.
Guillory worries that the cuts will force Northwest Indian College to charge more than some students can afford at the only accredited tribal college in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. “We’re thinking about cutting travel and supplies and increasing tuition and fees. I’m worried about pricing out our students. With tuition and fee increases, the question of access becomes a key concern.
“We’re also considering how much we can afford to pay for health insurance for the families of our employees. We wanted to increase faculty salaries to an equitable level, but now we can’t. We’ll do what we can to save jobs, though.”
Sansaver says Fort Peck Community College is looking at building overheads, payroll and how many courses it can offer. “It’s hard enough to attract quality staff. With these cuts, instructors could have four or five courses instead of two or three.” If the cuts continue, “we’ll eventually have to lay some people off and eliminate positions. It’s very difficult when you have to do that because it affects people’s emotions and livelihoods.”
The future is equally uncertain for other TCUs. “Is it going to get better?” says Vermillion. “It worries me as president that we don’t know what’s going to happen. If the sequester continues, the cuts will be bigger. Will we have to close our doors?”
Gipp says, “I don’t know we can handle another 5.2 percent sequester; our fear is for the future. I’m very concerned about what Congress and the president will do. We’re being as optimistic as we can be.”
Optimism remains the keynote at several TCUs. “We are passionate about what we do and will continue,” says George.
“We will be able to weather the storm,” says Guillory. ““We’re focusing on the things we can control. Focusing on political posturing does us no good.”
Three Affiliated Tribes of Ft. Berthold Chairman Tex Hall is on UTTC’s board of directors. Speaking at a scholarship fundraising event, Hall said, “Sequestration is a dumb way of doing budgeting. There really needs to be a strategic approach on this. There really needs to be some commitment from Congress and the administration. The president clearly has a huge role here. He has to step in and do what’s necessary.”