Fort Lewis College Shows The Way As Colorado Considers Tuition Change For Native Americans

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Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Fort Lewis College in Durango, Feb. 26, 2021.

When he was applying for colleges as a high school student in Hominy, Oklahoma, Noah Shadlow didn’t have many options. 

Not wanting to become a financial strain to his parents and siblings, he had his eyes trained on a small, Native American student-only university in Kansas, due to its low tuition. Then, he heard about Fort Lewis College in Durango. 

“I liked that I could attend without having to pay tuition through the tuition waiver,” he said. “I enjoy being around, like, my Native American friends back where I'm from. So I kinda wanted to keep that atmosphere going. Fort Lewis provided that to me.”

Fort Lewis College’s history is unique for a higher education institute. The land was initially an army post built after the Civil War. In 1891, the base was decommissioned and turned into a federal, off-reservation Native American Boarding School, which forced tribal students to abandon their cultural identities and assimilate into white, Euro-centric culture. 

The boarding school was transferred to the state in 1911, on the grounds that it would become an educational institute that doesn’t charge tuition for Native American students. More than 100 years later, that mandate still stands, benefiting students like Shadlow.

Now a junior, Shadlow is part of the approximately 41 percent of students at Fort Lewis who hold tribal citizenship. Tom Stritikus, the college’s president, said serving those communities is important given some of the school's history.

“This land and Fort Lewis sits within just a few miles of many indigenous tribal sovereign nations, the Southern Ute and the Ute Mountain Ute,” Stritikus said. “So our relationship with these communities is really important.”

Fort Lewis is the exception, not the rule, when it comes to Indigenous student enrollment. Of the nearly 2,400 Native American students enrolled in Colorado’s public institutions in 2019, 955 of them were attending Fort Lewis. 

Colorado and its higher education institutions are well aware of the low enrollment rates among Native American students. A newly introduced bill in the latest legislative session may help to address that. Sponsors said they have the support of the state’s public universities, including Colorado’s largest university, the University of Colorado Boulder.

Senate Bill 21-29 would require public universities to offer in-state tuition classification to students who are members of an Indigenous tribe with historical ties to Colorado. Senate Majority Leader Stephen Fenberg of Boulder sponsored the bill. He told the Senate Education Committee that he found inspiration from the University of Colorado, his alma mater.

“The board of Regents passed a resolution providing authority for the university system to request the statutory change,” Fenberg said. “When we started having conversations with other institutions and the sponsors and others, we decided that this is just simply the right thing to do.”

According to the Colorado Commision of Indian Affairs, there are 48 tribal nations in the United States with a history based in Colorado. If the proposed legislation passes, members of all 48 of those tribes will be eligible for in-state tuition. 

Language in the bill excludes Fort Lewis College from any potential changes, citing its historic commitment to serving Native American students. Stritikus supports the bill, but notes steps have to be taken beyond tuition classification.

“One of the things that we've learned at Fort Lewis college is that connection to community for Native American students is exceedingly important. The family is exceedingly important. Making a difference in one's own community is exceedingly important. So that means that curriculum, that means that services for students, that means that institutional orientations have to be shaped and molded accordingly,” Stritikus said.

Chantel Jones, a public health major at Fort Lewis, agreed. She said resources and spaces need to be available for Indigneous students in order for them to succeed. While working with inclusive faculty and peers, she was able to chart out her career goals. 

“My ultimate goal is to actually develop a health promotion program incorporating traditional Navajo healing properties, the aspects of the environment, to empower and heal patients with diabetes in the Navajo nation,” Jones said. “Being at the college sort of inspired me to come up with that idea and sort of mentally build that health promotion program.” 

Advocates also say college recruitment efforts need to be reexamined if the bill passes. For Jones, applying for colleges in high school was a difficult time. She and other Indigenous students didn’t get the same amount of attention from counselors and recruiters other non-Native students received. 

“When I was signing up for my FAFSA, nobody was really giving me any guidance,” she said. “They kind of just sat me down in front of a computer and told me to fill it out. I didn't know what any of these numbers meant and how to fill it out. I had to ask another teacher who had nothing to do with counseling. She was actually Native American herself and she sat by me and we went through together and I eventually filled it out.”

Colorado’s other universities will also have to put significant effort into revamping their outreach to tribal communities. Ernest House Jr, a Fort Lewis trustee member and the former executive director for the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs, said the bill’s potential passage is virtually pointless if colleges don’t get the word out. 

“There's a few things that should happen. One, broaden the prospective students' awareness, education. I think that the other thing is stronger communication with counselors, high school counselors and also tours with middle school students and high school students in getting the availability of opportunities to bring them on campus,” House Jr. said. 

Senate Bill 21-29 passed through the Senate Education Committee unanimously. It awaits a hearing in the appropriations committee. According to the bill’s fiscal note, it would require an additional $240,000 budgeted to the College Opportunity Fund. It also predicts a reduction in tuition revenue of up to $3 million. Other states, like Iowa, Utah and Washington have adopted similar policies.