This spring, Colorado’s legislative agenda includes a bill allowing out-of-state Native American students to attend all Colleges and Universities in Colorado at the state’s tuition rate if student tribal nations have historical ties to state lands. Colorado State University strongly supports this effort and sees it as a big step forward.
While Fort Lewis College has long been recognized as the state’s premier institution serving Native American students, we at CSU believe the commitment should be more widely shared. In 2011, we began offering courses in the state to Native American students with historical ties to the state. Last year, we expanded this opportunity to include students from all federally and state-recognized nations and tribes, regardless of their ties to a specific geographic area.
As a state university, Colorado State University was founded and remains proudly committed to the mission of providing access to higher education. Because CSU benefited (and continues to benefit today) from federal grants of land taken from Native Americans, we have a special responsibility to their descendants to ensure that they share these benefits.
To be clear: expanding access to Native American students is not something CSU has historically embraced. These actions required advocacy and activism on the part of Indigenous students, faculty and staff to bring the issues to the attention of the CSU administration. Too often this was in response to racist incidents on campus. But we have had administrations that were not only willing to listen and learn, but also to take decisive action. And at CSU, the results have been positive. The number of enrollments and retention of Native American students is on the rise.
As a state, we can learn from the experiences of institutions like CSU and take this step to do the right thing. However, we also need to recognize that it is not enough to simply enroll students on our campuses. Our institutions and our community must make a public commitment to their success and keep that commitment.
Some Indigenous students may be among those most at risk of not completing their education and graduating. Some may be first generation and eligible for Pell; others may come from communities where disparities in educational resources have left them with less academic preparation; some may have difficulty here because they find themselves separated from their home community and support groups.
At CSU, we have the Community for Excellence, a student success initiative focused on providing academic, emotional and social support that helps break down barriers to success. This support comes in part from the Native American Cultural Center, where staff, student tutors and peer mentors build community and connect students with key resources on and off campus. As more Native American students enroll in higher education institutions in Colorado, more resources will be needed to provide this type of essential support.
If our state is truly committed to supporting Native American students in choosing Colorado institutions, we must be prepared to support them on our campuses. CSU is actively engaged in this work and welcomes a broader conversation that includes our fellow state and tribal institutions and partners.
Keeping the federal access to education promise is the right thing for Colorado to do, and we are grateful to the Colorado General Assembly for giving this measure the attention it deserves.
Joyce McConnell is president of Colorado State University.
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