DENVER – Native American college students whose tribes have historic ties to Colorado would get in-state tuition at any public college under a bill the House passed Tuesday.
Although most representatives applauded the idea, it faced opposition concerning its costs. It passed 39-25, with Democrats and two Republicans in favor. Montezuma County’s representative, Don Coram, R-Montrose, voted against it. The bill still has to pass the Senate.
Fort Lewis College already allows free tuition to any member of an Native American tribe, and the policy will not change even if the bill passes. Although the Durango-area college would not be affected, it figured prominently in Tuesday’s debate over the bill.
“Fort Lewis does an incredible job of taking care of our population of Native American students,” said Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen.
She recited a long list of resources and clubs devoted to Native American students on the Skyhawks’ campus.
“The amount of work and the quality of work Fort Lewis is doing is far greater than what I believe any other college would be able to provide,” she said.
She also balked at the cost of the tuition discount.
But the sponsor, Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, said Colorado owes the bill to young tribal members because of a national history of forced removal and policies that kept Native Americans impoverished.
He also argued Native American students should have the option to study anywhere in Colorado, like the aviation program at Metro State or with a Nobel Prize-winning professor at the University of Colorado.
“Yes, Fort Lewis College is a fantastic college; there’s no doubt about that. But not all Native students want to go to Fort Lewis College,” Salazar said.
The bill was introduced in January, but it waited for a vote until now while legislators figured out whether they had the money to fund it. The estimated cost is $5.3 million a year. For out-of-state Native students at the University of Colorado-Boulder, passage of the bill would mean a yearly tuition discount of nearly $20,000 off the $32,300 bill for out-of-state tuition and fees.
The bill would apply to 48 federally recognized tribes. Most residents of the Ute Mountain and Southern Ute reservations would not be affected because they already qualify for in-state tuition.