Montana has the most tribal colleges in the country, and it’s the only state with one on every reservation. But together, all seven tribal colleges educate hundreds of non-tribal students as well, many of them white students.
Laura John, a tribal analyst with the Montana Budget and Policy Center says non-Tribal student enrollment in tribal colleges is growing.
"The tribal colleges have seen, overall, a 25 percent increase between 2009 and what’s projected for 2016-2017," according to John.
Montana tribal college leaders are asking the state for more financial support.
Tribal colleges receive federal funding based on the number of Native American students enrolled, about $5,500 each. But they don’t get any federal funding for non-Tribal students. That’s a pretty large financial burden to bear if you’re a school like Salish Kootenai College on the Flathead Reservation. Nearly a third of their students aren’t tribal members, significantly higher than the national average, and they have to figure out a way to admit them without raising tuition.
In 1995, Montana started giving tribal colleges funding, to help pay for non-Tribal students, initially capping the amount at $1,500 each. Since then, tribal college leaders like former SKC president Joe McDonald, have successfully lobbied to increase that cap to about $3,000.
But McDonald says the funding level wasn’t stable, and the legislature didn’t always approve the maximum amount. That meant job uncertainty for faculty and staff.
"This has gone up and down, up and down. It was always my belief that you don't alarm them. Even in the face of machine-gun fire you don't transfer that alarm to the faculty. You want to make them feel as secure as possible. Everyone just knew, underlying though, that we needed the money."
But McDonald says there’s an even bigger problem. It’s a lack of equality. Some tribal leaders don’t feel Montana treats schools in Indian country the same as larger state schools.
If one of those non-Tribal students enrolled at Salish Kootenai College decided to go to a state school, like the University of Montana, the state would give U of M almost twice as much money: about $5,500 compared to about $3,000 for the tribal school.
And for McDonald, the reason why isn’t exactly clear.
"If you get that figured out, let me know," McDonald joked. "I think it’s a number of things. Some members of the legislature want to reduce expense. And some of them feel that, you know, Indian Colleges, why support them.”
In January, Democratic Representative Susan Webber, a Blackfeet tribal member from Browning, introduced a bill to the House that would give a small raise to the funding level for non-Tribal students attending tribal colleges. But it’s still a compromise. And for many tribal college leaders, it’s not enough.
Last January, when a lawmaker asked Little Big Horn College President David Yarlott what a committee needed to do to help, Yarlott asked for equality across Montana’s higher education system.
"More parity as far as funding. That would immensely help", Yarlott answered.
And for Yarlott and other tribal college advocates, they also want equal representation in educational agencies that affect policy, "so that we’re able to sit at the table and voice our concerns. Because it’s not only our tribal members that we are servicing."
There aren’t any bills at the legislature this year to give tribes a stronger voice in state education funding, or to equalize the state’s per student funding at tribal colleges. Representative Webber’s bill to increase funding for non-Tribal students at tribal colleges passed the Senate Education and Resources committee Thursday, 9 - 1. The full Senate is expected to vote on the bill this week.