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Tribes seek changes in tuition waivers

Capital News Service

LANSING — Two northern Michigan tribes want changes in how the state calculates tuition waiver payments to public colleges so payments are based on how many American Indian students actually attend.

The tribes are not necessarily asking for more money for the program, said Mary Lindemann of Michigan Tribal Advocates, which represents Petoskey-based Little Traverse Band of Odawa Indians, as well as the Lac Vieux Desert band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians.

"We just want to make it correct and equitable,” she said. "There may be more of a cost, but it still needs to be equitable.”

Funding is based on counts of American Indian students conducted in 1996, and the numbers haven't been updated since, Lindemann said. The lack of current statistics means some universities don't receive their appropriate share of money and others receive too much, she said.

Until 1995-96, funding for the tuition program came from a specific item in the higher education budget. A veto threat by then-Gov. John Engler pushed the allocation into the general budget for universities and community colleges, according to Kyle Jen, a senior fiscal analyst with the House Fiscal Agency.

Without a specific allocation, it is difficult to know exactly what the Legislature intends to be spent on the tuition program each year, Jen said.

However, waiver costs have increased nearly 200 percent over the past decade, he said.

Under the 1976 Michigan tuition waiver law, all students who are at least one-quarter American Indian and a state resident for at least 12 months can have their tuition waived at any state university or community college, Lindemann said.

Each tribe is responsible for certifying quarter-blood members who are thus eligible for the waiver.

More and more American Indian students are taking advantage of the program.

For example, their enrollment at Lake Superior State University has increased greatly since 1996, now accounting for about 5 percent of its student body, said Lindemann.

The school enrolled 2,888 students last year, of whom about 145 are covered by the tuition waiver program.

Lake Superior State is the largest loser in percentage of tuition not reimbursed by the state, according to the fiscal agency. The university was estimated to be shorted $468,817 in 2005-06, or 3.75 percent of its total state appropriation.

Michigan State University actually lost more money — $497,986 — but that amount accounted for only 0.18 percent of its total allocation.

While all colleges are following the law, lack of money encouraged some to make it more difficult for Native Americans to qualify for the waiver, said Allie Greenleaf Maldonado, an attorney in Harbor Springs and member of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians.

"Since I've began working for my tribe, each year I've assisted tribal citizens in securing the Michigan Indian Tuition Waiver at various statewide schools,” she said. "Although most students have been successful in overcoming these obstacles, others have given up.

"As long as some public institutions are underfunded and others are overfunded, some public institutions will continue to limit use of the waiver program.”

Lindemann said, "All we are asking is to collect the numbers each year and adjust the funding. There's no reason it can't be fixed.”

The state may not even be complying with the law, she added.

Under the law, the Michigan Commission on Indian Affairs is supposed to report annually the number of students in the program.

Funding for the program should be based on counts for the previous three years, Lindemann said. Since counts haven't been conducted in 11 years, the law may be being broken.

There are other concerns with the waivers as well.

With the passage of the 2006 affirmative action ban known as the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, many programs are under fire for providing benefits based on race or ethnicity.

Maldonado argues the tuition program is protected because it is not an ethnic program.

Federally recognized tribes, such as Maldonado's, are considered sovereign nations under federal treaties.

"The Michigan Indian tuition waiver is legal because it is based on a political relationship, not a racial classification,” she said. "One of the fundamental tenets of sovereignty is the ability to deal with other sovereigns.”

A review by the Michigan Civil Rights Commission in March supports the tribes' claims.

"The tuition waiver remains valid under Proposal 2 because it does not grant preferential treatment based on race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin,” the commission said.

"Tribal status is a political category based on the relationship between the federal government and tribes as sovereign entities.”

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