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Casinos help pave the way to college for Mille Lacs Band members
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Chad Germann is a Mille Lacs Band members who took advantage of casino revenues to fund his education. He received a scholarship to attend a graduate program in English. Now he runs an advertising company. (MPR Photo/Annie Baxter)
The number of American Indians attending college in Minnesota is on the rise. Between fall 2001 and 2003, their enrollment in Minnesota State Colleges and Universities increased 20 percent -- to just over 2,000 students. That increase is due in part to concerted efforts by tribes to push college education. The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe is using revenues from its two casinos to give students extra subsidies, and that's landing students in college.

Onamia, Minn. — On a Wednesday morning at Red Circle advertising in Minneapolis, Mille Lacs Band member Chad Germann is getting ready for the work day.

He's the head of the company. Dressed in urban hipster jeans and a black bowling shirt, he strolls around the big warehouse office space and checks in with employees.

Germann says he's a little groggy this morning. It happens when he stays up late reading. Some of his favorite books are by French literary theorists.

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Image Mary Bohanen

"You get to a certain age, and if you're a bookworm you start to read philosophy," Germann says. "And if you're reading literature, you read lit theory. I just chew through that stuff as I can."

Chad Germann says unlike some of his American Indian peers, he always knew he'd go to college. His parents, aunts, uncles and cousins all have degrees.

A basketball scholarship landed him at St. Cloud State, where he studied creative writing and English. Then revenue from the band's casinos helped Germann continue on to a master's program at the University of North Florida.

"I knew that the casino had money; I knew they were spending it on kids going to college. And by the time I needed the money, which was after my four year scholarship ran out, I knew they had a program in place, and it was just a matter of filling out paperwork and talking to the right people, and you have your funding," Germann notes.

Not everyone takes immediate advantage of the band's subsidies at such a young age.

"I have two kids, a minivan, and a car payment, so it wasn't in the cards for me to go to college," says Mille Lacs Band member Mary Bohanen.

Bohanen is nearly 40 with curly bobbed hair and a wide grin. She works as a legislative assistant in the Band's government.

A few years ago, she wanted to go back to school. But her job and family obligations got in the way. So did her location. She lives in McGregor and wanted to attend Fond du Lac tribal college -- 55 miles away from her home.

I have two kids, a minivan, and a car payment, so it wasn't in the cards for me to go to college.
- Mary Bohanen, Mille Lacs Band member

So the band arranged for Bohanen to take satellite classes with seven other women in her community. The Band covered tuition. After three years, Bohanen earned an associate's degree. She'll continue on to pursue a bachelor's.

Bohanen says college fever is now hitting several members of her family. Even her mom is going to college.

"She's 62, and she's like, 'It's not like I'm gonna be back in the workforce for a long time, but I want my grandkids to see that,'" Bohanen explains. "She wants to show them that it's something that's important to her, too."

American Indians have the lowest college participation rates of the state's minority populations. But that's among recent high school grads. The college attendance rates of older students equal, and often exceed, those of other minorities.

That means non-traditional students like Mary Bohanen and her mother make up the lion-share of American Indians attending college.

The band's scholarship director, Eric North, is trying to change that. He wants to cultivate more interest in college among younger generations.

As he gives a tour of the Nay Ah Shing tribal high school, Eric North explains what he calls his college PR blitz. He invites speakers to talk about college and organizes campus visits to universities.

"We talk to students about going to college. Career choices is really what we're looking at," North says. "'What do you want to do when you grow up?' And, 'What do you need to do in order to get to the position you want?'"

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Image The Band's director of Higher Education

In spite of the push for college, high school dropout rates remain high.

Mary Bohanen says she has realistic expectations about how far some younger Band members will go with their educations. She uses the kids in her niece's seventh grade class as an example.

"I think there's eight Native American students going into seventh grade this year. It's been my experience over the years that if we're lucky one or two will graduate. I think rarely they get past tenth grade."

In the end, band members like Chad Germann, who go straight to college and on to grad school, are still few and far between. Younger band members might defer college till later in life, as Mary Bohanen did. But if kids wait too long, they might enjoy fewer perks. The casino money is finite. And as more people attend college, the extra casino subsidies might be harder to come by.

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