- Associated Press - Monday, April 18, 2016

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - A Bismarck community college run by the five American Indian tribes in North Dakota is waiving tuition for members of federally recognized tribes, hoping to boost enrollment and give students a better financial start to life.

United Tribes Technical College will launch the one-year pilot program beginning with the fall semester and end its participation in the federal student loan program.

Student loans don’t work for families who don’t have savings or access to credit, and it’s unconscionable to expose students with poor financial literacy to sizable debt, college President Leander “Russ” McDonald said.

“These are students from some of the most impoverished areas in the country, and we believe it’s our obligation to offer realistic financial assistance to help them get started on a path that will change their lives,” he said.

The school draws students from around the country and currently has 393 students enrolled, according to Kathy Johnson, vice president of student services. Nearly 40 tribal nations are represented in the student body. Students pay tuition of up to $200 per credit.

But enrollment has declined, mainly due to more available job opportunities, many tied to the oil industry that has boomed in recent years. Two dormitories on campus sit empty, and the college wants to beef up enrollment by almost 100 students. Even if the majority of them are eligible for the tuition waiver - 87 percent of current students are American Indian - fees they would pay for such things as housing, books and meals with the help of grants and scholarships could help make up for the lost tuition, McDonald said. Tuition accounts for only 10 percent of the federally funded college’s $8.3 million annual operating budget, he said.

United Tribes is not the first to offer tuition waivers. More than half of the 37 tribal colleges and universities in the nation have some sort of tuition waiver program, according to Kathy Page, research and policy associate for the American Indian Higher Education Consortium. Last year, nearly 10 percent of all students in tribal schools received tuition waivers, she said.

“Financial stress is the single greatest deterrent to successful completion at our colleges, so any effort to help make college more affordable and help students complete a program is extremely important,” said Carrie Billy, president and CEO of the consortium.

United Tribes will review the effectiveness of its tuition waiver program early next year. It will be offered at least through the 2017 summer semester.


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