By MAXWELL EVANS
Capital News Service
LANSING — The state shortfall in funding a tuition waiver program for Native American students has more than doubled over the past decade, leaving universities to make up the growing difference.
The North American Indian Tuition Waiver Program waives tuition and fees for eligible students attending public universities, community colleges and tribal colleges. Participants must be at least one-fourth Native American, enrolled in a federally recognized tribe and have been a Michigan resident for at least a year.
The program is “imperative for our students to move forward” in their careers and lives, said Kerstine Bennington, the higher education specialist for the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians. She would know — she’s a former program participant who used her waiver to attend Michigan State University.
As a first-generation college student from a disadvantaged background, Bennington said the program opened up opportunities that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. Many tribal members have similar stories, she said.
“There was no chance I would’ve attended that university without it,” she said. “It’s such a big opportunity. It’s moving us forward as a people and bringing people out of poverty.”
The funding is “very important” to students, allowing those from lower-income backgrounds the security to remain in college, said Melissa Alberts, the higher education specialist for the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians.
“If they didn’t have the waiver, they may not be able to attend school for as long as it would take to get a degree,” Alberts said. “Some would be able to start, but maybe not finish if they didn’t have the waiver.”
Central Michigan, Michigan State, Ferris State and Northern Michigan universities are the Little Traverse Bay Bands’ most consistent partners through the waiver program, Alberts said.
In 2019, these schools will face four of the top five gaps among public universities between state funding and total program costs, according to a recent House Fiscal Agency report. Central and Michigan State top the list, with estimated state funding shortfalls of $1.24 million and $989,000, respectively.
While the number of waivers granted at universities has remained steady through the decade — never going lower than 900 or higher than 1,200 since 2008 — the cost burden has shifted from the state to the institutions.
In fiscal year 2009, state funding of waivers was a little more than $3 million short of the total needed to cover every student who enrolled, according to the agency. The excess costs fall to the universities. In 2019, the state budget shortfall will grow to an estimated $6.7 million.
And that shift has hurt.
Current funding levels “assume we’re delivering today’s education at a 1996 price, which obviously we’re not,” said Shelley Wooley, the interim dean of student life and retention at Lake Superior State University. Her university has seen a 27 percent increase in the cost of the program over the last five years, and state funding for 2019 is expected to be short by about $264,000.
As the state’s smallest public university, “it’s a bit of a challenge” to make up for the gaps in program funding, Wooley said. She estimates about 5 percent of the university’s enrolled students qualify for a waiver.
Fully reimbursing Lake Superior State for its program costs should be a priority for the state, given how the university’s proximity to local tribes “enables us to support growth of tribal members in terms of education and promote cultural engagement,” Wooley said.
“We’ve had instances where we’ve got multiple generations in a single family that have come to LSSU, earned their degree on their waiver, and then their children and their children’s children do too,” she said. “Whenever you take a first-generation student and help them earn a college degree, you change the entire trajectory of a family line.”
Tuition rates and student enrollment determine the effectiveness of state funding, Native American specialist and tribal liaison for the Department of Civil Rights Melissa Kiesewetter said in an email. Students’ enrollment statuses are also a factor, as post-graduate studies cost more, she said.
It’s “been a long time” since the state has taken sufficient long-term action to address the funding shortfall, Alberts said.
In fiscal years 2017 and 2018, the state appropriated $300,000 to be proportionally distributed among the state’s 15 universities on a one-time basis. It is unclear if the 2018 appropriation will be rolled over into the next year’s budget.
The state has made two other appropriations — in the 2007 budget for $1.4 million and in 2014 for $500,000 — to reduce the “structural shortfall” within the program, according to the House Fiscal Agency. In both cases, the funding was distributed proportionally based on each school’s gap in state funding and rolled over to the next year’s budget.
The state should return to line-item, dollar-for-dollar reimbursement to institutions, given the program’s impact on Native Americans’ upward mobility, Bennington said.
“It’s almost as if colleges are getting punished for accepting native students,” she said.