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Sandra Boham, president of Salish Kootenai College, said when Philanthropist MacKenzie Scott’s advisors called, she cried.
Scott, formerly married to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, wanted to give a major gift to the tribal college.
“I don’t know if MacKenzie Scott realizes how incredible this is for our college. If I could, I would grab her and hug her. Institutions like ours, we don’t usually get the kind of donations she’s making,” Boham said.
Scott this week announced she had donated $4.2 billion in the last four months to 384 organizations nationwide, including three tribal colleges in Montana.
Though Salish Kootenai College is not disclosing the specific amount of the gift, Boham said the donation will help the school increase access to affordable housing and provide more professional development opportunities for students.
Located in Pablo, Salish Kootenai College, offers one, two and four-year programs and serves about 800 students from 68 tribal nations.
“We live on grants, which are great when you get them, but when you don’t, it’s a scramble,” Boham said, adding that the college hasn’t raised tuition in seven years.
“If we increase tuition, our students can’t access our opportunities. And we are all about equity and cultural perpetuation. We are open-admission and operate on a tight budget, but we are truly that gateway to making someone’s life change,” she said.
Scott also donated to the Blackfeet Community College in Browning and Chief Dull Knife College in Lame Deer. The three tribal colleges were the only Montana institutions on her expansive list.
Tribal colleges provide Native and non-Native students an affordable path to higher education; they bring employment opportunities to rural communities and contribute millions of dollars to the state’s economy each year, according to a recent Montana Budget and Policy Center report, which deemed the schools “an outstanding return on investment.”
“American Indian students who attend (tribal colleges and universities) are more likely than their peers who attend (non-tribal colleges and universities) to graduate without debt, receive support and pursue careers that align with their interests,” the report reads.
Richard Littlebear, president of Chief Dull Knife College, said Scott gave the school $1 million.
“(Scott’s advisor) kept saying, ‘You guys are doing good work.’ It was a general statement, and we know we do good work, but to be the recipients of $1 million. Wow. That is, that is really good. Now I know what those Publishers Clearing House winners feel like,” he said.
Littlebear said that while the college has not yet decided how it will allocate the funds, he knows they will be thoughtful in distribution. Chief Dull Knife College serves about 300 students per semester.
Blackfeet Community College leaders called Scott’s gift “historic” and “transformative,” saying it’s the largest donation the college has received.
The college will use the funds to expand education opportunities for students and launch sustainability efforts.
“Blackfeet Community College is truly indebted to Scott’s generosity and will ensure that these funds honor her values of racial equity and economic mobility,” reads a release from the school, which did not disclose the amount of the gift.
College President Karla Bird was not immediately available for comment.
Scott wrote that after hearing from hundreds of experts, leaders and volunteers, a team of advisors took a data-driven approach in “identifying organizations with strong leadership teams and results, with special attention to those operating in communities facing high projected food insecurity, high measures of racial inequity, high local poverty rates, and low access to philanthropic capital.”
Though tribal colleges get some revenue from tuition, their primary source of funding comes from a federal law, which authorizes $8,000 to colleges for each American Indian beneficiary student, according to the Montana Budget and Policy Center report. But the actual allocation is subject to appropriation, and in 2016, tribal colleges received about $6,700 per beneficiary student.
Montana provides state funding to tribal colleges to support resident, full-time nonbeneficiary students, but that funding is capped at $3,280 per nonbeneficiary student.