Out-of-state American Indian college students who have tribal connections to Colorado will be able pay in-state tuition rates here, under a bill that passed a legislative committee on Feb. 5.
House Bill 1124 would apply to any student, regardless of where they reside in the country, so long as they are a member of one of the 48 federally-recognized Indian tribes with historical ties to Colorado.
Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, the bill's sponsor, told the House Education Committee that the bill would give assistance to a group of people that has historically been underrepresented at colleges and universities.
Salazar said his bill would provide American Indian students with more opportunities to receive an affordable college education.
"American Indians are some of the most economically impoverished people in the history of the country," Salazar said.
Salazar brought up the historical plight of American Indians as motivation behind the bill.
"We recognize that American Indians were forcibly removed from their homeland and that, had it not been for that, they would be able to receive in state-tuition in the state of Colorado."
Supporters of the bill testified that American Indians are the least likely group to attend colleges or universities. Deborah Esquibel Hunt, the American Indian Student Services director at the University of Colorado at Denver, said that American Indians make up about 2 percent of the state's population and less than 1 percent of the student population at CU-Denver.
"That is an underrepresentation of an underrepresented group," Hunt said. "It is an incredible loss we are encountering because we cannot maintain American Indian students in Colorado."
About 2,500 American Indians could end up enrolling in state colleges and universities if the bill becomes law, according to the Colorado House Democrats communication staff.
According to the Legislative Council, there are about 700 nonresident students who identify themselves as American Indian who attend Colorado colleges and universities. The bill would increase expenditures from the state's College Opportunity Fund by at least $668,160 annually, beginning the next fiscal year.
The tuition bill would apply to all higher education institutions in the state, except for Fort Lewis College in Durango, which already provides free tuition for American Indian students.
Only one person testified in opposition to Salazar's bill. Maria J. Fay of unincorporated Arapahoe County, who ran an unsuccessful House District 51 campaign in 2012, said through written testimony that the bill is "a disgrace."
Fay was unable to provide her own oral testimony, so Salazar read her letter, which trashed his bill.
"By the same logic, African Americans were brought here as slaves," Fay's testimony read. "Maybe give in-state tuition to little green men from Mars. Colorado didn't take their land from them, the federal government did... When does it end?"
But the rest of the day's testimony came from several people who spoke in support of the bill. They included Sasha Hoskie, an Indian education liaison for Adams 12 Five Star Schools.
Hoskie, a Navaho Nation member and third-generation Coloradan, testified that she was approached by a representative from Arizona State University several years ago, who offered her an in-state tuition rate to go to college there.
Hoskie went to school at ASU and came back to Colorado in hopes of furthering her education, only to realize that she would have to pay out-of-state tuition in a state where she had lived for most of her life.
"I realized financially, I couldn't afford it," she said. "I would have benefited from this program."
The bill passed the Democrat-led committee following a bipartisan vote of 9-4. Reps. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, and Jim Wilson, R-Salida, joined all committee Democrats in voting in favor of the bill. The measure now heads to the floor of the House for a full vote.
This is the second year in a row that Democrats have presented legislation to make college more affordable for students with an out-of-state residency classification. Last year, the Legislature passed a bill that would allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates at colleges and universities.