Before he even considered going to college, Byron Tsabetsaye ruled it out.
While attending high school on the Navajo Nation, Tsabetsaye didn’t know anything about college applications, financial aid or selecting a major. An average student, Tsabetsaye said his teachers didn’t expect him to go to college, so he didn’t either.
“As a student on the reservation, it was hard to find support in terms of people encouraging me to go to college or telling me how to get there,” he said. “There just wasn’t the expectation, and so I limited myself and my views on higher education. I ruled it out because I thought my parents couldn’t afford it.”
Yet Tsabetsaye, the son of a homemaker and a Navajo Housing Authority employee, was destined for something greater. He was poised to become a first-generation college graduate, but he didn’t know where to start.
Then a friend introduced him to Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado.
Fort Lewis awards more bachelor’s degrees to Natives than any other college or university in the United States. Only one other institution, the University of Minnesota, Morris, offers free tuition to Native students.
Tsabetsaye enrolled and excelled. He served as student body president before graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English in 2013. He finished a Master of Arts degree in higher education and student affairs this spring at New York University, but he attributes his success to Fort Lewis.
“Looking back at myself, it seems almost impossible that I didn’t know about college opportunities,” he said. “At Fort Lewis College, it’s not just a tuition waiver but an opportunity for Natives to go to college.”
Fort Lewis offers bachelor’s degrees in 30 disciplines, including programs in science, technology and math, and it boasts more than 80 registered student organizations. With 162 tribes represented—including several from Alaska—it’s in the running for most diverse campus in the nation.
But this small liberal arts college perched atop a hill overlooking Durango is becoming a source of controversy for Colorado as the annual tuition tab increases. More than 1,100 Native students enrolled last year, comprising 30 percent of the total student population—and placing an unprecedented financial strain on the state.
Colorado last year paid 6 million in tuition for Native students at Fort Lewis, with 5 million of that for out-of-state students. The growing bill pits a century-old charter against contemporary questions of who should foot the bill.
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