While attending high school on the Navajo Nation, Tsabetsaye didn’t know anything about college applications, financial aid or selecting a major. An average student, Tsabetsaye said his teachers didn’t expect him to go to college, so he didn’t either.
“As a student on the reservation, it was hard to find support in terms of people encouraging me to go to college or telling me how to get there,” he said. “There just wasn’t the expectation, and so I limited myself and my views on higher education. I ruled it out because I thought my parents couldn’t afford it.”
Yet Tsabetsaye, the son of a homemaker and a Navajo Housing Authority employee, was destined for something greater. He was poised to become a first-generation college graduate, but he didn’t know where to start.
Fort Lewis awards more bachelor’s degrees to Natives than any other college or university in the United States. Only one other institution, the University of Minnesota, Morris, offers free tuition to Native students.
Tsabetsaye enrolled and excelled. He served as student body president before graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English in 2013. He finished a Master of Arts degree in higher education and student affairs this spring at New York University, but he attributes his success to Fort Lewis.
“Looking back at myself, it seems almost impossible that I didn’t know about college opportunities,” he said. “At Fort Lewis College, it’s not just a tuition waiver but an opportunity for Natives to go to college.”
Fort Lewis offers bachelor’s degrees in 30 disciplines, including programs in science, technology and math, and it boasts more than 80 registered student organizations. With 162 tribes represented—including several from Alaska—it’s in the running for most diverse campus in the nation.
But this small liberal arts college perched atop a hill overlooking Durango is becoming a source of controversy for Colorado as the annual tuition tab increases. More than 1,100 Native students enrolled last year, comprising 30 percent of the total student population—and placing an unprecedented financial strain on the state.
Colorado last year paid $16 million in tuition for Native students at Fort Lewis, with $15 million of that for out-of-state students. The growing bill pits a century-old charter against contemporary questions of who should foot the bill.
“A lot of people don’t understand the tuition waiver,” said Yvonne Bilinski, director of the college’s Native American Center. “All they understand is that it’s costing the state of Colorado X number of million dollars per year and Indians get something for free. That rankles people.”
Bilinski, Navajo, did a public presentation earlier this year to help people “go back in time” and put things into perspective.
Fort Lewis began as an army post in nearby Pagosa Springs, Colorado, in 1878, and was relocated to Hesperus two years later. In 1891, it was decommissioned and converted into a federal Indian boarding school, pulling students mainly from Southwest tribes and educating them in trades like sewing, cooking, farming and animal husbandry, Bilinski said.
In 1911, the fort was transferred to the state of Colorado to establish an agricultural and mechanical arts high school. Approved by Congress, the deed came with the stipulation that the facility would “be maintained as an institution of learning to which Indian students will be admitted free of tuition and on equality with white students” in perpetuity.
Although it began as an Indian boarding school, only nine Native students were enrolled in 1957, the year after the school moved from Hesperus to a 250-acre plot in Durango, Bilinski said. Seven years later, Fort Lewis awarded its first baccalaureate degrees, and by 1970, Native enrollment had ballooned to 192.
“Obviously, they came because of the tuition waiver,” Bilinski said. “That’s the most expensive part of education.”
Since 2009, the Native population has increased by 43, percent, yielding record-high tuition bills for the state and prompting Colorado lawmakers to seek federal assistance. The Native American Indian Education Act, introduced in the House by Colorado Rep. Scott Tipton, has attracted at least 40 co-sponsors. The Senate is considering a similar bill, sponsored by Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner.
The bill is the second attempt in the last two years to relieve Colorado of the burden of paying tuition for all Native students when the majority of them come from out of state. It calls on the Secretary of Education to pay tuition for all out-of-state students at both Fort Lewis College and the University of Minnesota, Morris, while cautioning that failure to do so puts the tuition waivers “at risk of being terminated by severe budget constraints being experienced by these colleges and the states which support them.”
Fort Lewis College President Dene Kay Thomas supports the bill “to the core.”
“I will be the first to admit that nobody could have seen the national impact that the charter would have,” she said. “If you think back to then, New Mexico and Arizona were territories. Modern transportation didn’t exist. We had horses and not much else.”
Now, Natives are still the most underserved population in America, Thomas said. According to a 2011 report on Minorities in Education, American Indians and Alaska Natives account for only .7 percent of the bachelor’s degrees awarded annually.
There’s no question Fort Lewis College is helping to bridge that gap, Thomas said. It’s No. 1 in the nation when it comes to Natives earning bachelor’s degrees in the STEM fields.
But to Thomas, the tuition waiver—unintended and underfunded as it may be—means more than enrollment numbers or success stories.
“We are a country of laws and principles,” she said. “When we look at what the country has taken from Native Americans, to suggest that we don’t owe them education as a federal trust responsibility disregards the enormous sweep of history. This is the moral, ethical, right thing to do.”