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U of M, Morris wants government help for tuition waiver
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This old, brick building on the University of Minnesota campus in Morris is all that's left of an Indian boarding school built in the 1880s. The boarding school was here long before the land was used for a university campus. Today the building houses the Multi-Ethnic Resources Center. (MPR Photo/Tim Post)
There's an old brick building at the University of Minnesota, Morris that serves as a reminder of campus history. According to a historical marker out front, long before there was a university here, this land housed an Indian boarding school.

That piece of the past is why Native American students from anywhere in the country can attend school at Morris, without paying tuition. School officials say they're happy to pay for Indian students' tuition, but they'd like some help from the government.

Morris, Minn. — Lisa Rainbow has a lot planned after her spring graduation from the University of Minnesota, Morris. You can tell by talking to the 21-year-old senior, she's determined to help people. Sitting in a busy campus lunch spot, Rainbow says she wants to use what she's learned in sociology and American Indian studies back home.

"I want to go into social work and counseling. So I plan on going home for a couple of years before I go to grad school," Rainbow said.

Home for Rainbow is the Spirit Lake Reservation in North Dakota. She talks about the challenge of growing up on the reservation, and of the close-knit community that raised her.

Returning to the reservation is an emotional subject. As she talks, she pauses to dab away tears with a little, crinkly lunchroom napkin.

"I guess I just feel really grateful because I did have the opportunity to leave," Rainbow said through her tears. "I'm one of the very few out of my graduating class that has gone away to college. It's something I hold really dear to me."

Rainbow's family couldn't afford to send her to college. But at Morris, Indian students don't pay tuition.

About 150 Indian students attend Morris, the largest minority group on campus. They make up 7 percent of the nearly 2,000 students enrolled.

The tuition waiver itself is not very restrictive. To qualify, Native American students don't have to be enrolled members of a tribe. A student just has to prove Indian heritage, and their $8,000 a year tuition bill is forgiven.

The tuition waiver is a product of the school's history. In the 1880s, an Indian boarding school was built on this land. University Chancellor Sam Schuman says the boarding school was set up in 1887 by a group of nuns called the Sisters of Mercy.

"It was a place that took kids out of their families, out of their communities, and imposed upon them most of the conventions of the majority culture. They weren't allowed to speak their own language, they were dressed up like white, middle-class workers," Schuman said.

The boarding school was part of a government effort to mainstream Indian children. By the early 1900s, that policy was ending and the nation's Indian boarding schools were closing down. At about the same time, the Sisters of Mercy turned over their school -- its land and buildings -- to the federal government.

The nuns had one requirement in the transaction. No matter what institution was built on the land, Native American students would be given an education there for free. It was a condition the federal government accepted.

But Schuman says today it's a $1 million a year obligation for the school. That's what it costs to cover the tuition of 150 Native American students.

"It's a classic unfunded mandate, and it's about 1/26th of our budget. It's a significant fiscal burden," says Schuman. "It's the right thing to do, and we're not going to stop doing it. We think we should get some help. If we do, that would be great. If we don't, we'll just keep funding it."

Schuman doesn't think Minnesota taxpayers, who ultimately foot the bill through the university system, should have to pay for the entire program. Others on campus, like anthropology professor Julie Peletier, agree.

"This was a federal boarding school," Peletier said. "Even when the nuns ran it, it was a contract school through the government. So the burden to me is on the federal government."

Peletier also teaches classes on Native American issues at Morris. She's part of the Micmac-Maliseet tribe of Quebec and Maine.

Her heritage allows her son to attend college here on the tuition waiver. But Peletier says that's not why she's a strong advocate for the program. She says if the country wants to help Native Americans deal with problems in Indian Country, like poverty and substance abuse, providing an education is the best way to do it.

"Let us prepare people to go back to their communities and make substantive changes that will favorably impact everybody," Peletier said. "Who's running Indian gaming operations? These are Indian people with educations. Who's running tribal governments? People who've got educations."

A handful of public universities around the country offer Native American students a break on tuition. In most cases the students must be enrolled tribal members and live in the state where they attend college.

But only two schools in the country, Morris and Ft. Lewis College in Colorado, let Indian students from anywhere in the country attend for free.

Ft. Lewis College, where there was also once an Indian boarding school, doesn't receive any federal dollars to pay for the tuition waiver either. But in Colorado the state pays for the waiver through a separate allocation -- it's not a part of the college's overall budget.

Officials at the U of M, Morris are trying to get the federal government to help out with the tuition waiver. Last year they asked both of Minnesota's U.S. senators to press for funding for the waiver. No appropriations passed Congress. They say they'll ask Republican Sen. Norm Coleman and Democratic Sen. Mark Dayton to try again this year.

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