College education can be the difference between meandering into the world of work or roaring into a career to make a difference for family and the Native community. Both the little one who dreams of healing and the idealistic youth seeking justice can achieve their dreams only through graduate education. Non-profit organizations like the American Indian Graduate Center have helped thousands of young Natives realize these dreams over the years, but today they are struggling to meet the twin challenges of increased student enrollment and escalating costs.
We all feel the pinch of rising gas prices, food prices and other basic costs. But what young people wanting a life-changing career are feeling is more along the scale of being crushed by a boulder, as tuition for higher education has tripled, quadrupled, and quintupled, and continues to rise faster than prices in any other industry. Every year, families across America make this investment at the cost of crippling themselves with debt. The student loan burden today is higher than for auto loans or credit card debt. Some say it’s our next disastrous “bubble.”
In times of economic downturn, it's common to turn to higher education to find better jobs or retrain for emerging industries. But the cost of a bachelor's degree or graduate degree has escalated to the point that a four-year degree at a state university adds up to about $80,000 (in-state). For a private school, it can be close to that much every year. A master's degree starts at $20,000. That "change-the-world" youth will have to come up with $100,000 for a law degree. The youngster hoping to treat relatives afflicted with diabetes will have to shell out about $150,000 for a medical degree.
While there's no question that tribes need more educated and qualified professionals throughout our communities, sometimes there's just no way for Native American students and their families to handle price tags like that, even if they were willing to assume the debt. And students saddled with huge student loan debt may find it difficult to accept lower-paying reservation jobs. The solution to bridging that gap has been around for nearly 45 years.
Back in the late 1960s tribes were looking for ways to get their voices heard in Washington and in their states. Robert Bennett, the first Director of the American Indian Law Center, a lawyer and member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin who had been the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in the Johnson Administration, recognized a need for more tribal members to get graduate educations so they could effectively implement change for our people. Together with John Rainier of Taos Pueblo, they planted the seeds of the “American Indian Scholarships” organization that eventually became the American Indian Graduate Center (AIGC).
AIGC has become an essential resource for students seeking higher education, using over 90% of its funds directly for student services and scholarships. A partnership with the Gates Millennium Scholars program through the United Negro College Fund has allowed AIGC through its counterpart AIGCS (Scholars), Inc., to support undergraduate studies as well. Inclusion of AIGC in the recent settlement from the Cobell trust fund has the potential to add the equivalent of $12 million to AIGC's endowment. However, the much-appreciated addition is not immediately available; in fact, it may take up to 10 years to reach the intended amount.
Twelve million dollars doesn't go as far as it used to, though—at current prices, that would cover 600 master's degrees or 80 medical degrees. Right now, 13 percent of Native Americans earn a college education, compared to 30% for the rest of the country. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 1.5 million of the approximate 5.2 million Native Americans are 18 and under. Even if only 13 percent of those kids pursue a college education, that's 200,000 young Native Americans who will strive to earn an undergraduate degree without crippling themselves or their family with debt. Put that way, the Cobell settlement is clearly just a drop in the bucket. Even the $1.6 billion Gates Millennium Scholars program only expects to fund 1,000 hardworking students a year. Fifteen percent of those are American Indian or Alaska Native community members who apply through AIGC Scholars, which makes about 150 new awards annually.
Congressional reform of loan structuring, tuition caps, or subsidies could help this situation, but AIGC is not waiting for this Congress to get anything done. The organization is stepping up its fundraising appeals to tribes and individuals who want our children to fulfill their dreams, make a good living, and hopefully make their tribal communities a better place.
AIGC also holds fundraisers to support student scholarships, like an ongoing, online art sale (AIGCS.org) that features unique pieces by master artists including Cliff Fragua, Helen Hardin, Margarete Bagshaw, John Nieto, and Bunky Echo Hawk. But the organization's life blood—corporate sponsorships, employer matches, individual donations and planned giving—has all but dried up with the perception that the fund was rolling in dough, thanks to Bill Gates and the Cobell settlement.
Think about this, ask any Native American to name the top Native organizations and you will hear something like this: NCAI, USET, NIEA, NARF and NIGA. Why is it that AIGC is rarely or ever mentioned? An organization striving to educate our future leaders isn’t even mentioned as an afterthought.
AIGC Director Sam Deloria vigorously states, “We need to get Native America completely engaged in the business of educating our people and, when prominent Native organizations are named, AIGC should always be proudly included with our other influential organizations. Tribal and individual donations are needed now more than ever; the beneficial Gates and Cobell funding are positive steps in the right direction, but will not nearly fill the need. Remember how many of the revered old chiefs and leaders exhorted their people to get an education to help them adapt to the new conditions facing Native people. Get involved now!”
Native America Calling recently hosted the program coordinator for College Horizons, Christine Suina from Cochiti, to talk about what high school seniors need to know about going to college. When asked about how discouraged Native students can get about pursuing higher education, Suina encouraged families to "tell them to reach for their dreams. Apply to that dream school, apply to the local university…. You grow so much as a student. You learn so much about who you are and where you come from." When asked if getting a higher education was worth it, she affirmed, "We need educated native people and native students to help our people continue to exist and excel in our world today." The lively discussion brought up the fact that so many factors discouraged youth from higher education, including funding, that many give up before giving it an even chance.
AIGC doesn't want to see aspiring young people selling their dreams short, either. Tribes with gaming and natural resource revenue have focused on investing within their communities. Perhaps it's time to look beyond local borders and support all Natives in reaching for their dreams.
In the spirit of transparency, I have recently been appointed to the AIGC board of directors and have developed a far better understanding of the urgency to create a stronger better financed AIGC to take educating our people to a real level of sustainability, we have a long way to go before we are caught up with the rest of the world.
Walter Lamar, Blackfeet/Wichita, is a former FBI special agent, deputy director of BIA law enforcement and is currently president of Lamar Associates. Lamar Associates' Indian Country Training Division offers culturally appropriate training for Indian country law enforcement and service professionals with both on-site and online courses.