Mark Trahant: Investing in future generations of our Native youth

President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Jan. 28, 2014. Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon

Indian Country is rarely mentioned during a presidential State of the Union. That’s too bad. There is so much a president could do to improve the administration of federal Indian policy.

The president could urge Congress to fund Treaty Right obligations as automatic. After all, it’s essentially the same kind of spending as interest on the federal debt. (A cost, by the way, that the Congressional Budget Office figures will triple in a decade, reaching some $800 billion.)

Or insist on multi-year budgets for the Indian health system, making it much easier to plan ahead, be more efficient, and improve health care.

In a perfect world the president would ask Congress to invest in the next generation of American Indians and Alaska Natives. Everyone talks about how important young people are — so why not do something and something substantial?

Funny thing about that last point: That’s exactly what President Barack Obama will propose in his annual message to Congress.

The United States “dedicated ourselves to cultivating the most educated workforce in the world and we invested in what’s one of the crown jewels of this country, and that's our higher education system. And dating back to Abraham Lincoln, we invested in land-grant colleges. We understood that this was a hallmark of America, this investment in education. But eventually, the world caught on and the world caught up,” he said in a Knoxville, Tennessee, speech, a preview of the State of the Union. “And that’s why we have to lead the world in education again.”

In an economy where knowledge and technology fuel the future the president said “the single most important way to get ahead is not just to get a high school education, you’ve got to get some higher education.”

Even though the president’s message was broad, he was also giving an apt description of the 37 tribal colleges and universities. Then again, the president is not new to this issue. He’s already championed increasing opportunity for Native students, most recently signing an executive order affirming that commitment.

So any boost in funding for community colleges will likely result in more money for tribal colleges too and that’s a smart investment for a lot of reasons.

First consider the big picture, the budget. It’s clear that the US government is on an austerity course. Money for education and other domestic programs has been shrinking not growing (measured by share of the economy). But the entitlement side of the budget — Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare — is getting more expensive because of the sheer size of the Baby Boom generation.

The problem is that the country is not investing enough in the next generation; instead it’s saddling young people with student debt, now exceeding some $1.2 trillion (more than any other type of household debt). It’s we Baby Boomers who should be shouting about the stupidity of this policy. Fact is we need young people to be as successful as possible, as quickly as possible, to pay for our retirement. The generation called the Echo Boomers is huge, some 90 million people. (The most common age in America right now is 22 years old.)

This generation will require more education in order to be successful in an information-based economy. The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce estimates that 62 percent of all jobs will require at least some college education by 2018. That is an increase from 59 percent in 2007, 56 percent in 1992, and 28 percent in 1973.

So the time is right to increase the investment in education in general — and especially for tribal colleges and universities.

One benefit of that increased investment is is that every dollar spent will also boost the economy on reservations. A recent study found that in one state, North Dakota, the five tribal colleges spend more than $48 million on supplies and payroll and another $94 million indirectly. This is an economic engine — especially because there is so little private sector activity on reservations.

I have had a chance to visit more than a dozen tribal colleges — and every time I’m impressed by the students and the ideas that are generated from the reservation campuses. These are innovation centers — something sorely needed in Indian Country especially as the federal government shrinks.

Add it all up and it’s why President Obama’s plan is exactly the right policy.

Yet there remain huge obstacles — especially when it comes to funding. Tribal colleges receive far less than is what’s needed to get the job done (then, what Indian program from health clinics to law enforcement has enough money?)

And Congress isn’t likely to open its checkbook after the State of the Union. That is unless enough people tell members how critical this investment is to the future of the country.

Mark Trahant holds the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.

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