Fort Lewis College is once again seeking federal funding to defray the cost of offering free tuition to Native American students, and Congress should agree. While a wonderful effort – and a promise fulfilled – the program’s cost has grown to the point where it is unfair to ask Colorado to bear the burden alone.
U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, and Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., have a bill in Congress to address this. It is not the first effort, but, with 41 co-sponsors from both parties, it is the most promising effort yet. That is especially true in that the tuition waiver will cost Colorado $15.3 million this year – up more than $800,000 from last year.
The bill reflects the college’s evolving mission. Its name stems from a U.S. Army post first established near Pagosa Springs, which was subsequently moved to a spot along the La Plata River, west of Durango. It functioned as an Army post from 1878 to 1891, home to both infantry and cavalry troops. The so-called Indian Wars having largely been resolved, it proved to have little military utility.
In 1891, Fort Lewis became a boarding school for nearby Native American students. In 1911, in the move leading to the current question, Congress gave the school and the site to the state of Colorado – with the condition that Native Americans would attend tuition-free.
Fort Lewis continued to evolve, first as an agricultural high school and later, beginning in 1933, as a junior college. After moving to its present location in 1956, it offered its first four-year degrees in 1962.
Throughout all that, the requirement the college educate Native Americans tuition-free has remained in place – and no one would dispute its legitimacy or its value. Not only is the provision fair, it is beneficial to all concerned.
While never the scene of a battle, as an Army post, Fort Lewis was a part of the 19th century subjugation and relocation of Native Americans. That their descendants should receive some benefit seems only fair.
Moreover, the racial, cultural and intellectual diversity fostered by honoring the free-tuition agreement makes for a better college experience. It expands the horizons of Natives and non-Natives alike and broadens the understanding of all concerned.
At the same time, though, it also costs money – much more money than any of those around in 1911 might have imagined. Some of that is simply how the world has changed. Forget cell phones and Internet access, in addition to computers or equipment for science labs; the changes in plumbing alone in the last century are indicative of how prices just cannot be compared.
Perhaps more important, when Congress specified that tuition be free for Native Americans – the actual language probably said Indians – it cannot have realistically understood what that might mean in the 21st century. In 1911, travel in the Four Corners was primarily on horseback. The thought may well have been that Fort Lewis students would include some Utes and a perhaps few Navajo.
But as one of only two U.S. colleges to offer free tuition to Native Americans, Fort Lewis draws native students from across the country – that includes a number of students from Alaska as well as the college’s largest contingent of native students, individuals from Arizona.
That is a spectacular expansion of educational opportunity. As those numbers grow, however, so does the cost to the college. And that has to come from somewhere.
Better that it should come from federal coffers than from increased tuition on other students or cutbacks to important programs. Congress should recognize the federal role in creating this situation, and pass Tipton and Bennet’s bill.