Congress provides tribal college aid in COVID-19 response

BY STAFF REPORTS
03/31/2020 08:30 AM
WASHINGTON – On March 26, the U.S. Senate passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, which allocated urgently needed funding to tribal colleges and universities or TCUs.

While important in addressing immediate, short-term needs, the American Indian Higher Education Consortium states the funding falls far short of the estimated $140 million that TCUs and their students need to adequately and equitably address the post-secondary, workforce development, research and community-support challenges facing Indian Country as COVID-19 sweeps across the country. 

Through the Bureau of Indian Education, the CARES Act provides $20 million in immediate, emergency relief to TCUs and an additional share of the $153 million allocated to the BIE as part of the massive $30 billion national Education Stabilization Fund. For state-based education programs, this funding is split nearly 50-50 between kindergarten-12 schools and higher education, and AIHEC expects a similar division by the BIE.  

In addition, the CARES Act allocates certain funding under the U.S. Department of Education’s HEA Title III program, including $50 million for TCUs, $25 million for Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian-serving institutions, and $6 million for Native American-serving, non-tribal institutions. The bill also provides small pockets of additional funding for which TCUs would be eligible to receive funding or apply to receive funding through the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Education. 

TCUs, like all other post-secondary institutions in the nation, are faced with, disruptive change. There is a need to modify, halt, or extend programming, transition to online learning, and create safe spaces and opportunities to learn at a distance. The road ahead is difficult: TCUs are among the most under-resourced institutions in the country, and TCU students are among the poorest financially. In fact, 78% of TCU students receive Pell grants, more than half are first-generation students, and about 85% are rural residents from federally recognized Indian tribes. Many lack reliable internet access at home. 

TCUs face another challenge, which distinguishes them from other institutions of higher education: collectively, they have the slowest internet access at the highest average cost of any group of institutions of higher education in the country. The average connectivity speed at TCUs is 336 Mbps, compared to 513 Mbps at other two-year institutions and 3.5 Gbps at other four-year institutions. The average connectivity costs at TCUs range from $40,000 to $250,000 per year. Iḷisaġvik College, Alaska’s only TCU, has both the most expensive and slowest internet connectivity in the entire U.S. higher education system. 

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