Nationwide, tribal college and university leaders are concerned about how automatic federal budget cuts will affect their cash-strapped schools.
But officials at Oklahoma's tribal institutions expect the impact of the federal cuts to be minimal.
Carrie Billy, president of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, said the cuts, commonly known as budget sequestration, could have dire consequences for American Indian tribal colleges, which already are operating on lean budgets.
Nationwide, Billy said, tribal colleges are operating on funding that is 30 to 50 percent lower than they need. Most tribal colleges rely heavily on federal dollars, she said, with up to half their funding coming from federal grants. When federal funds are cut further, critical services are put in jeopardy, she said.
“There's no fat to trim,” she said.
The role of tribal colleges is different from other colleges and universities, Billy said, as they generally offer GED preparatory courses in addition to degree programs. Tribal colleges often operate the only public library on American Indian reservations, she said.
Tribal colleges are key to economic development efforts on reservations, she said. In areas often plagued by unemployment and poverty, the colleges offer a path for students to make themselves more marketable.
“We need to get those people into the pipeline. They need to get GEDs and have work training programs available to them,” she said. “Particularly for the reservation-based Indians, there's really no place else for them to go.”
The situation is less dire at Oklahoma's tribal colleges. Robert Bible, president of the Okmulgee-based College of the Muscogee Nation, said the college doesn't receive any federal funding.
Oklahoma is home to four tribal colleges: College of the Muscogee Nation, Lawton's Comanche Nation College, Pawnee Nation College in Pawnee and the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribal College, on the campus of Southwestern Oklahoma State University in Weatherford.
All four colleges are relatively new. Comanche Nation College, the oldest tribal college in the state, was founded in 2002.
The Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, a higher education accrediting board, lists Comanche Nation and College of the Muscogee Nation as candidates for accreditation.
Comanche Nation College President Consuelo Lopez said the college is entirely funded by the tribe's casino revenues, meaning it will see no direct impact from budget sequestration.
Likewise, the College of the Muscogee Nation is funded by the Muscogee (Creek) Nation through casino revenues, Bible said. But he hopes to see the college draw more federal dollars once it receives accreditation. Then, any grants the college receives could be affected by federal budget cuts that might be enacted.
“We are kind of making plans just in case,” he said. “We haven't been affected yet.”