John Gritts, Cherokee, credits his mom, Billie Marie Gritts, now 90 years old, as one of the people responsible for his career. “My parents and grandparents believed in education,” he said. “They made it possible for me and my four brothers to go to school.” And John, 69, who was recently honored by the American Indian College Fund, has made it possible for countless other American Indian students to attend college by helping them negotiate the often bewildering—and always demanding—financial aid process. On March 19 he received the American Indian College Fund’s first Lifetime Achievement Award “in recognition of his ongoing service in supporting and furthering the missions of tribal colleges and universities throughout his career.”
Gritts now works for the U.S. Department of Education in the Minority Serving and Under Resourced Schools Division of Federal Student Aid. Getting aid, he said, “is a paperwork challenge because we ask for a lot of information. Although the department is trying to make it easier for students and parents there’s still a process that students have to follow. And if they miss a deadline, that really hurts them.”
He recommends that students pick a school where they can succeed after making sure that it offers the degree they want. “Then you apply for admission, you become admitted and you follow up. If we write you a letter then you have to read it, you have to answer it, you have to do the things you have to do.”
There was a time when students who did all their paperwork on time could get a college education without having to borrow, but that time is mostly gone, said Gritts, “because the cost of education has increased so much over the years. Even at a state school if tuition is $12,000 to $15,000, your Pell grant, even at the maximum $5,750 is not going to pay for that cost. Even with the aid you’re getting from the tribe or if you get a good scholarship, it’s just not enough to pay for everything. So it’s becoming harder and harder.”
The exception to this challenge is tribal colleges and universities, Gritts explained. “The beauty of the tribal colleges is that they keep their costs low and they’ve elected not to participate in student loan programs. So a student can go to a local school on the reservation, or Haskell, or Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute or Institute of American Indian Arts, and keep their costs low enough that they don’t have to borrow. Only three of the 36 accredited tribal colleges participate in student loans, and I think that’s amazing. A student can stay at home and get a quality, culturally-based education, and be successful.”
Asked to describe his professional life, Gritts said, “I am going to say it was a fun life, and I say that in all good heart because I enjoyed my career.”
He started at Black Hills State College in 1973 as a counselor for student support services and then moved to the Center for Indian Studies. “In December 1974 I was asked to go into the financial aid office and help them because there were some changes in the staff there. I said, ‘What would I ever want to do this for?’” he joked. “I learned about the process of student financial aid and actually enjoyed it.” In 1980 he was named director of financial aid. “At the time I thought it was huge for a state school to name an American Indian as the director of a program like that.”
In 1997, he moved to the American Indian College Fund. “I just thoroughly enjoyed that, hearing stories and hearing how tribal colleges and universities were doing. To me they just keep moving to the next level. They’re cornerstones on the reservations… they do a wonderful job with educating their students.”
Gritts said one of the most memorable developments during this time was a $30 million grant from the Lilly Foundation in 2002 to build log cabins on tribal college campuses. “That was huge. I think that helped the schools go to the next level because when I was first working there they were still in storefronts, in dilapidated buildings. Then the tribal college movement just seemed to mushroom into these beautiful campuses where all the education can happen. Not that it wasn’t before, because it was. They might be meeting in a church basement or in a school after school, but they were still doing a good job. But this pulled in the communities; they said we’re here to stay and we’re going to provide a quality education.”
In 2006, Gritts left the American Indian College Fund and went back to Santa Fe to work at IAIA, where he had studied from 1966 to 1968. He served as director of admissions, records and enrollment. Then in 2008, “I had the opportunity to come to work for the U.S. Department of Education and I’m glad I did because it’s a different level and I still can be an advocate for the tribal colleges here,” he said.
Gritts said one of the things he is most proud of is that three of his sons went to tribal colleges and two graduated. “And the one that didn’t, Trevour, the Creator took him home before he could graduate.” He said they all waited until a while after high school “and worked and learned what life was about and then came home one day and said I’m going to college. And they were focused and committed to that.”
Sons Jeromie, and Carleton are working at Glacier National Park. Gritts’ stepson, Brian, is a banker in Sioux Falls, and daughter KJ works for the Smithsonian in Washington. “So I’m most proud that my children are doing what they like to do.” Gritts lives in Denver with his wife Page Lambert. They have two grandchildren and a third on the way.