Chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee Jon Tester (D-MT) held a hearing to look at ways to improve higher education for Native college students. The hearing, Tester’s fourth on Indian education, came hours after student loan legislation was filibustered in the Senate.
Tester emphasized the need to eliminate barriers that limit American Indians’ access to college. Despite a doubling of Native college enrollment in the past 30 years, American Indians are still underrepresented at four-year postsecondary institutions and retention and graduation rates remain disproportionately low.
“We’re not just talking about low scores on college admissions tests or low completion of high school course requirements. The fact is we’re losing a good portion of Indian students before they graduate from high school,” said Tester. “It’s my belief that all Native children should have the option of going to college, and clearly that’s not the case right now.”
The Committee received testimony from Billie Jo Kipp, President of Blackfeet Community College, one of seven tribally controlled colleges in the state of Montana. Tribal colleges, despite major funding challenges, offer culturally-based academic programs and job training to more than 30,000 Native students across the country. They also provide access to higher education for many people in remote locations who otherwise could not afford to leave home to attend college.
“The federal government’s modest investment in tribal colleges is yielding a tremendous return,” said Kipp. “BCC, along with all the tribal colleges, takes hope in a few pitiful dollars and shapes them into opportunity for educational success, healthier lives, revitalized languages and safer environments for our people.”
In addition to Dr. Kipp, the Committee heard from Cheryl Crazy Bull, President of the American Indian College Fund, which provides scholarships to American Indian students seeking to further their education. Only one-in-20 of the fund’s scholarship applicants can afford to go to college without financial aid.
“We need our tribal colleges to remain open, to be financially viable and to grow as institutions, so we need your continued support for full funding for tribal colleges and their students,” said Crazy Bull.
Prior to the hearing, the Committee held a business meeting and approved five bills: S. 919, the Department of the Interior Tribal Self-Governance Act; S. 1447, the New Mexico Native American Water Rights Settlement Technical Corrections Act; S. 1574, the Indian Employment, Training, and Related Services Consolidation Act; S. 2041, the May 31, 1918 Act Repeal Act; and S. 2188, A bill to amend the Act of June 18, 1934, to reaffirm the authority of the Secretary of the Interior to take land into trust for Indian tribes.
S. 2188 –introduced by Tester and Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS) and known as the Carcieri fix – is intended to end the uncertainty around the land-into-trust process that was triggered by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Carcieri v. Salazar decision in 2009. The decision has resulted in lost economic opportunities, stalled tribal infrastructure projects, increased litigation, bureaucratic delays at the Department of the Interior, and disparate treatment of tribes.