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Fort Lewis College is one of the best kept secrets


Fort Lewis College in Durango Colorado. (Photo Courtesy of Purgetory Resort)

Nestled upon a beautiful mountain top overlooking Durango, Colorado (home of the southern Ute Tribe) is a well-kept secret – Fort Lewis College which offers free tuition to students enrolled in federally recognized Tribes.

Currently, Native students represent 184 different Tribes including Alaskans at Fort Lewis College, comprising 42 percent of the small student population of 3,550 – our largest native enrollment yet. It has been so important for Fort Lewis College and the Native American community,” said Shelby Tisdale, Director of the Fort Lewis Southwest Studies Institute and museum.

Established in 1891, the facility was originally a military fort. Then it was an Indian boarding school for some time. When the federal government turned the site, buildings, and land over to the State of Colorado which in turn transformed it into a four-year college it was under the condition that American Indians enrolled in a federally recognized Tribe could attend tuition-free.  Over the years that has added up to significant amounts; each year the Colorado Legislature appropriates funds to reimburse the college for the tuition of Native American students who qualify for that assistance. At today’s cost that represents a savings of about $15,000 per year for each student. The students, do however, must come up with resources for books, room, and board etc.

Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell who facilitated a personal tour of the college for this writer, served Colorado for decades in the US Congress and has long been a supporter and champion of Fort Lewis College. “I taught there for two years in the art department,” he said “and so I know it is a very fine school.  Both of my children graduated from there. The college actually awards more bachelor’s degrees Indian students than any other college in the country, especially the science, technology, education and math fields, “Nighthorse proudly reported.

The Center for Southwest Studies, featuring beautiful stone southwest architecture is a highlight of the college. Established in 1964, it is dedicated to the history of the area, mostly Native American but also including Hispanics and they have collections from the Great Plains and California areas as well. In addition, Tisdale explained that the college has a Native American Center, providing support services; Native American Clubs which frequently host pow wows and other cultural events and learning opportunities. “Many of our Native students are first generation college students,” Tisdale explained. The first time away from home, college can be strange and lonely. We try to really welcome them to this school. It also helps that we have small classes, averaging about fifteen students, allowing close relationships between students and instructors.”

The Center relies on student interns paid under work study programs. For example, she mentioned Elice Billigan, Osage who recently gained a degree in Art History and Anthropology, after serving as an intern and now is working at the Center developing displays and working on curation.

The college offers a wide variety of bachelor’s degrees; education, health sciences, public health and business are some of most sought-after degrees. Currently, for example Tisdale said the college is developing a degree focusing on culturally appropriate health care.

Admission requirements are like other postsecondary institutions: a minimum GPA of 2.0 or a GED, admission application an essay which is very important and test scores are optional.  It is also possible to transfer from tribal colleges. For more information contact the admissions office at 970-247-7184 or


(Clara Caufield can be reached at

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