State Tribal Colleges: An Important Investment

Jul 08, 2014

Investing state funds in tribal colleges is a smart use of state dollars. Tribal colleges benefit our state by providing a quality, affordable higher education to students regardless of race. The tribal college system in Montana stimulates our economy and increases the pool of individuals who are trained and ready for work. 

Tribal colleges rely primarily on federal funding provided through the Tribally Controlled Colleges and Universities Act. Under this Act, the federal government provides tribal colleges with funding based on the number of students who are members of a federally recognized tribe. These students are referred to as “beneficiary” students, and on average tribal colleges in Montana receive $5800 per eligible student enrolled.   

As we mentioned last week, "nonbeneficiary" students – students who do not belong to a federally recognized tribe but attend a tribal college – do not receive any federal support. This means that tribal schools must cover the costs of these nonbeneficiary students. 

In response to this funding gap, in 1995, Montana policymakers approved the Tribal College Assistance Program (TCAP) to help offset the lack of subsidies for nonbeneficiary students. Yet, while TCAP has provided much needed dollars to the tribal colleges, the per-student funding has fallen well below support of ‘traditional’ Montana schools.

As the graph below shows, per-student funding for Montana’s non-tribal two- and four-year colleges is nearly double the amount provided for non-beneficiary students at tribal colleges.

Tribal College Funding



Source: Mitchell et al., “States are Still Funding Higher Education Below Pre-Recession Levels,’” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities May 2014 and Montana Legislative Fiscal Report 2015 Biennium. 

*This number includes a one-time-only increase of $523 per student. Ongoing TCAP amount is $2,481 per student.


State policymakers should look to change the way the tribal college funding is determined. One potential solution is to align tribal funding with how community colleges in our state are funded.

But the bottom line is the tribal colleges in Montana play a critical role in Montana’s higher education system. Only a handful of other states have taken the opportunity to support tribal colleges – an investment which pays off with a more educated workforce and a stronger economy. Increasing the resources available to tribal college students would only expand that opportunity and push Montana even further ahead. 

Montana Budget & Policy Center

Shaping policy for a stronger Montana.

MBPC is a nonprofit organization focused on providing credible and timely research and analysis on budget, tax, and economic issues that impact low- and moderate-income Montana families.