DENVER – Native Americans from 48 tribes would be eligible for in-state college tuition anywhere in Colorado under a bill that advanced Wednesday at the Legislature.
Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, said his bill will help Native American students graduate. They are among the least likely demographic groups to attend college.
“We spend a considerable amount of time recruiting students to come here, but they don’t stay because of money,” Salazar said.
His House Bill 1124 would allow students from any tribe with historic ties to Colorado to qualify for in-state tuition at any of the state’s public colleges and universities.
The House Education Committee approved it on a 9-4 vote.
The lone exception to Salazar’s bill would be Fort Lewis College, which already grants free tuition to Native Americans, regardless of their tribes’ historic links to the state. Right now, the state spends about $15 million a year on the Native American Tuition Waiver at Fort Lewis.
Fort Lewis officials have talked about HB 1124, but they don’t think it will have a negative effect on Native American recruitment at the Durango campus, said Steve Schwartz, vice president of finance and administration.
“At Fort Lewis, it’s still free. We still have that price benefit that the other schools don’t,” he said.
In any case, with so few American Indian students attending college, there are plenty of potential students to go around, he said.
“If it helps Native American students to get educated, then that’s a positive for the Native population,” Schwartz said.
The Fort Lewis Board of Trustees has not voted to take a position on the bill, but Schwartz said the board might discuss the bill at Friday’s meeting.
Wednesday’s hearing attracted Native education experts from across the state.
Tanaya Winder grew up in Ignacio and now is director of the University of Colorado’s Upward Bound program.
She brings Native American high school students to CU every summer to introduce them to the college environment. But typically, more than half of them will not go to college in Colorado, she said.
“They really do fall in love with the Boulder campus and Colorado,” Winder said. “They’re not able to come here because of the price.”
Just one person, J.M. Fay of Aurora, testified against the bill, via a letter she gave Salazar to read.
It was the federal government, not Colorado, that dispossessed American Indians of their land, Fay’s letter said.
“This took place, like slavery, over 100 years ago. When does it end?” she wrote.
The Legislature’s economists estimate it would cost around $6 million, mostly in lost out-of-state tuition revenue for the colleges, to give in-state tuition rates to tribal members. The bill carries one of the higher price tags of any piece of legislation this year.
But proponents said it’s a worthy investment.
Carla Fredericks said she couldn’t have afforded to go to CU if she lived on her home reservation in North Dakota. She got in-state tuition because she had moved to Colorado.
She’s now co-director of the CU Law School’s American Indian Law Program, and she said it can be hard to recruit Native students to her school.
“House Bill 1124 helps ensure … that the future leaders of Indian Country will have access to the type of resources that CU provides,” she said.
The bill’s next test is the House Appropriations Committee. A hearing has not been scheduled.