Tribal colleges do much more than provide affordable education in reservation communities. Many are leading the way in creating programs to help American Indian families save money and build assets. As part of First Nations Development Institute’s (First Nations) Native Family Empowerment Program, Chief Dull Knife College and Northwest Indian College have been providing several programs for tribal college students and the larger reservation community. The Native Family Empowerment Program (NFEP) is specifically designed to support tribal college students with young children, providing their families with social and financial supports. The long-term goal is increased family well-being and long-term community economic development.
Past research has indicated that unlike traditional four-year institutions, the average tribal college student is in her 30s and has a child. Attending college is hard enough, but it is especially difficult when caring for a child and working a job at the same time. With funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, First Nations is assisting Chief Dull Knife College (CDKC) and Northwest Indian College (NWIC) in offering programs for their students who are also parents. The programs offer a range of financial services, asset-building supports, and work and income supports.
One way CDKC and NWIC are making an impact on student-parents’ lives and the wider reservation community is by providing Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) sites. The VITA program offers free tax preparation by IRS-certified volunteers for people who generally make $54,000 or less. Northwest Indian College utilized NFEP funding to offer a VITA site at NWIC for the first time in 2015. In its first year, NWIC prepared 55 federal returns, which amounted to $122,334 returned to community members. An additional $42,839 in Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) was brought into the community. The Earned Income Tax Credit is a refundable tax credit for low- to moderate-income working individuals designed to reduce poverty by increasing income. In its 2016 season, NWIC more than doubled the community impact with 131 federal returns, resulting in $246,882 being returned to families, and $109,262 in EITC. Northwest Indian College also assisted 60% of all families filing to use direct deposit for their tax returns, reducing their wait time for their refunds.
Chief Dull Knife College was also able to provide a VITA program for its 10th and 11th seasons over 2015 and 2016 with funding through the Native Family Empowerment Program. In the 10th year, Chief Dull Knife’s VITA site filed 501 returns, totaling $1,343,216 in refunds to community members, and $678,378 in EITC. This year CDKC filed 614 returns, amounting to $1,592,796 returned to American Indian families, and $747,009 in EITC. In 2016, it even coordinated with campus faculty to enable seven IRS-certified student volunteers to earn college credit for volunteer hours.
In addition to the tremendous work the two tribal colleges have accomplished through their VITA programs, both schools have developed a number of financial empowerment programs for student-parents. Chief Dull Knife partnered with local community development financial institution People’s Partners for Community Development to implement an Individual Development Account for student-parents. These students receive ongoing financial coaching and will use their matched funds to pay for a home or further education. Chief Dull Knife has also opened 10 savings accounts for children of student-parents and will open 10 more during the grant period. Northwest Indian College is also working with local banks to offer a children’s savings account program for children of students at their school. Additionally, NWIC offers monthly wellness seminars geared toward the needs of their student parents, such as budgeting, healthy eating and mental health.
By Benjamin Marks, First Nations Senior Research Officer