legislature

Changes expected to American Indian tuition bill

Classification of specific tribes becomes roadblock for advancement

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A bill that seeks to provide tuition relief for out-of-state American Indian students will be scaled back because of difficulties over the cost assessment of the legislation, according to the bill sponsor.

The original intention of House Bill 1124 was to allow all students living out of state who have tribal connections to Colorado to receive in-state tuition rates at state colleges and universities.

But the legislation is expected to be amended to apply only to incoming students and not American Indians who are currently enrolled.

“What do you say to that person?” said Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, the bill sponsor. “Maybe that's something we can work on next year.”

Salazar said the changes to the bill became necessary after learning more about how colleges and universities count American Indian students.

Under the bill, only students who are among one of the 48 federally recognized tribes that have historical ties to Colorado qualify for in-state tuition. But Salazar said that estimating costs is difficult because schools don't dig deep into the specific tribal backgrounds of students.

The Legislative Council estimates that the bill's first-year cost to the state will exceed $668,000. Also, state colleges and universities were estimated to lose more than $5 million in tuition revenue under the original version of the bill. However, they are expected to see an increase of students who wouldn't otherwise attend their schools.

But all of those statistics would be difficult to calculate under the current system of American Indian student calculation, which Salazar calls a counting system that results in “pie in the sky numbers.”

“They have a bunch of students out there who just check the box and say they're American Indian, but they don't prove which tribe they're from,” Salazar said. “They can have, as you sometimes hear, a Cherokee Indian princess grandmother, and they mark the box, `American Indian.'”

Salazar said the changes to the bill could end up being a good thing because colleges would then have to start classifying the specific tribes from which students belong. He also said that the cost to the state “would be quite minimal, if anything at all,” once the bill is amended.

“I did run it past stakeholders and the stakeholders said it's better to have in-state tuition for American Indian students than not,” Salazar said. “And if it looks like the bill is going to die because of a wrong fiscal note, then we don't want the bill to die.”