College presses Congress as tuition-waiver costs rise

DENVER – Colorado’s tab for educating Native American students at Fort Lewis College will rise $1.6 million next year, to $14.2 million.

But unlike three years ago, when legislators tried to cut the escalating price tag, the Legislature’s budget committee hardly blinked at the cost Tuesday when FLC officials presented their spending plan.

FLC President Dene Kay Thomas assured the Joint Budget Committee that the college is making progress in Washington to get the federal government to pick up much of the cost.

Colorado taxpayers currently pay for tuition at FLC for any Native American student from any state. The arrangement stems from a 101-year-old contract between the state and the federal government that gave Colorado the old FLC property in return for educating Native American students free of charge.

Today, FLC grants more four-year college degrees to Native American students than any other college in the country. But it comes at a rising cost to the state, at a time when college budgets have been cut drastically.

“This has become an unintended unfunded mandate from the federal government,” Thomas said. “It is important that we continue to do the good work that we’ve been doing, but it is important that we spread the burden to the federal government.”

Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, have introduced a pair of bills to get the federal government to pay tuition for out-of-state Native American students at FLC and a Minnesota college – the only two schools in the nation that allow Native Americans to attend tuition-free.

Those bills will die at the end of the year, but Bennet and Tipton intend to introduce new ones. Bennet held a hearing for his bill last year, which Thomas said was a vital step that will help pave the way for the new bill.

The next step is to get a hearing for Tipton’s House bill. Thomas and Tipton recently had a meeting with Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., chairwoman of the House Subcommittee on Higher Education. She seemed receptive to holding a hearing, Thomas said in an interview.

“Every time we make a trip back, we add new sponsors to the bill. We are working very hard,” she told the Joint Budget Committee.

JBC members also lobbied Congress on FLC’s behalf this fall, said Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, chairman of the committee.

“We’ll continue to do what we can to provide some additional push for the federal legislation,” Steadman said.

jhanel@durangoherald.com