BIA denies scholarship funds for Navajo students, 12.18.20

PRESS RELEASE – U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Indian Affairs Declines to Fund the Navajo Nation’s
Higher Education Program for 2021

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. – The Bureau of Indian Affairs informed the Navajo Nation on Wednesday that it would not enter into an agreement to fund the Navajo Nation’s Higher Education Program for 2021 despite the five-year P.L. 93-638 contract already in place.

In a letter sent to the Navajo Nation, BIA Regional Director Bartholomew Stevens wrote, “The BIA NRO [Navajo Regional Office] does not currently have any available funding for the Higher Education Program because the Secretary of the Interior has not received funds for the program. Therefore, the present applicable funding level for the contract is $0.”

The Higher Education Grant Program, which provides federal funding for scholarships to tribes, is administered by the Department of Interior. Through a P.L. 93-638 contract between the Department of Interior and the Navajo Nation, the Bureau of Indian Affairs forwards funds to the Office of Navajo Nation Scholarship and Financial Aid (ONNSFA) to provide financial aid and scholarships to Navajo college students.

Rose Graham, ONNSFA director, said the BIA’s declination puts funding for scholarships to Navajo students in serious jeopardy. More so this year as federal funds will not be forthcoming from the BIA anytime soon.

On Dec. 16, the ONNSFA requested an advance of $2.5 million from the Navajo Nation to complete Spring term awards. Ms. Graham said that student awards for the Spring term may be delayed as the ONNSFA seeks additional funds.

Ms. Graham explained that each year, the ONNSFA is forced to request advances from the Navajo Nation to cover Spring term awards due to the fact that the BIA does not provide funds to the Navajo Nation until mid- or late-January.

“We are already challenged to meet a great need,” Ms. Graham said. “Each year, thousands of Navajo college students submit applications for scholarships and financial assistance.”

In 2019, a total of 13,269 students submitted applications to the ONNSFA. Using available resources, the ONNSFA was able to provide awards to half of all applicants. Federal funds of $13.4 million comprised more than 53 percent of the total amount available for awards to students in 2019.

“Our office is working with Navajo Nation officials to respond to the BIA’s declination letter,” Ms. Graham said. “We are hoping to resolve the situation so that student awards are not further impacted.”

For the last three years, the Trump Administration proposed to zero out funding for tribal scholarships. Congress rejected the Trump administration’s attempts to eliminate the Higher Education Grant Program in 2019 and 2020. However, Congress has yet to pass a budget resolution for Fiscal year 2021.

“This is the first time the BIA declined to enter into an annual funding agreement for the Higher Education Program,” Ms. Graham said. “It’s puzzling as Congress continues to fund all programs even when the federal government is operating on a continuing resolution. I sincerely hope the situation will be addressed soon and Navajo students are not left without financial aid they desperately need.”

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