In the largest private donation ever made to a Native American organization, the Lilly Endowment Inc. has given the American Indian College Fund a $30 million grant to replace buildings at 30 tribal colleges on reservations in the West and Midwest.
The gift, awarded in June and to be formally announced in Washington today, is by far the largest contribution ever received by the fund, almost matching the $35 million total the Denver-based charity has been able to raise in its first decade of existence.
The Lilly Endowment, based in Indianapolis, has led a recent trend of the nation's largest foundations making major grants to boost the higher education of racial and ethnic minorities who remain underrepresented in colleges and universities. In July, Lilly gave $50 million to the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, the largest amount ever granted to a Hispanic organization for education in the United States. And last year, Lilly donated $42 million to the United Negro College Fund, in what was then the largest grant the foundation had made outside Indiana.
"The needs of these populations are so glaring and self-evident that the endowment felt these funds would be used for good purpose and have a ripple effect for a long time," said Gretchen Wolfram, a Lilly spokeswoman.
Nor has Lilly been alone in focusing on educational opportunities for minorities. Two weeks ago, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which this year eclipsed Lilly as the nation's largest private foundation, announced a massive $1 billion, 20-year grant for college scholarships for minority students.
Richard Williams, executive director of the American Indian College Fund, said: "A gift of this magnitude gives all American Indian people hope. Tribal colleges are reversing a century of failure by giving Indian students a holistic academic and cultural education."
The tribal colleges, which enroll 26,000 students on campuses in 12 states from Michigan to California, provide a combination of traditional academics and Native American culture, such as indigenous language courses. Most are two-year institutions. The oldest tribal college, Dine College, was founded as Navajo Community College in Arizona in 1968. With 2,000 students, Dine is also the largest.
According to the fund, about 40 percent of tribal college graduates continue their education, while less than 10 percent of Native American students who leave reservations to attend public colleges manage to graduate. Nationally, more Native Americans have been going to college, but still at a far lower rate than members of other minority groups.
With the $30 million grant, the fund is launching a five-year campaign to raise a total of $120 million to make capital improvements at the tribal colleges. The funds will pay for construction of modern classrooms, labs and libraries.
"The conditions of these tribal colleges is not good at all," Wolfram said. "These are accredited colleges and they are in double-wide trailers and sinking buildings in some cases. They need help."
Ron McNeil, president of Sitting Bull College in North Dakota, runs one of the campuses with serious infrastructure problems. "My main classroom building is sinking because we can't afford to maintain it," McNeil said. "We are doing everything possible to offer a first-rate education to students who wouldn't be in college if it weren't for us. Scarce resources force maintenance and construction to the bottom of the list."
If fund-raising reaches the goal of $120 million, each of the 30 tribal colleges would receive $3 million to upgrade facilities and another $1 million in endowment funds to strengthen their financial stability. The capital campaign has been in the planning stages for more than two years.
The tribal colleges receive operating funds from the federal government, but not from states. Earlier this year, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation granted the American Indian College Fund $2 million for new math and science buildings and the Tierney Family Foundation gave $1 million for child care facilities on campus.