COMMENTARY: Tribal Higher Education providing opportunities for Cherokee students

by Oct 16, 2018OPINIONS





Comet Financial Intelligence’s website ( has a ticker that updates every few seconds showing the total student loan debt for Americans.  As of the publishing of this commentary, it is $1,434,353,722,910…it’s probably thousands or millions of dollars more by the time you’re reading this.  The website reports that the average student loan debt in America is $37,172 with an average $393 monthly payment.

Over 400 students, all members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, are attending an institution of higher learning free of charge this fall due to the efforts of the EBCI Higher Education & Training Program.  Tuition, housing, meals, and books are all covered under this program which funded 410 students at the beginning of the semester.

“Our people will be better equipped to face the workforce challenges and opportunities that face us as we continue to grow and diversify our economy,” said James Bradley who has served as the EBCI Secretary of Education since May 2017 and as EBCI Higher Education & Training program manager for the two years prior.  “Through two and four year programs, vocational and technical certifications and on the job training opportunities, we hope to meet the educational needs and varied interests of tribal members.”

For the fall 2018 semester, the program funded the students to the tune of $2,787,673 including $1,534,150 in tuition; $573,120 in housing; $229,912 in meals; and $8,975 in books.

Bradley noted, “We are currently looking at ways to redesign the program, and begin working with middle and high school students at early ages, to encourage people to pursue degrees in areas where there is a lack of qualified, experienced tribal members, thus increasing the likelihood that they will be gainfully employed when they complete their course of study.”

He added, “I would like to thank the Chief and Vice Chief and members of Tribal Council for their support of the Higher Education & Training Program. Also, the staff of the program display enthusiasm, patience and an unwavering dedication to our students that makes it possible for hundreds of our people to attend higher education institutions all over the country every year. I am very grateful for their efforts and their willingness to go above and beyond what is required to provide excellent service to our students.”

Students for the fall semester are attending around 175 different institutions of higher learning including many top-ranked schools such as UNC Chapel Hill, Yale University, Vanderbilt University, and others.  My daughter is a freshman at the University of Iowa studying in their top-rated writing program.

This past year, we went through the process of getting her funding from the Higher Education Program, and it was quite easy to be honest.  From the orientation and initial meetings to the final documents being turned in, everything was laid out and organized on their end of what they needed from us on this end.

Leann Reed is my daughter’s education liaison, and she’s been incredible to work with.  Every time we had a question on something, she got back to us in a timely fashion.  All of the education staff is incredibly busy, so having patience and giving them a chance to get back with you is a must.  She’s been great, and I hope my daughter has her throughout her academic career.

I saw a funny eCard recently that states, “May your college memories last as long as your student loan payments.”

Funny card, but I, and I’m sure a ton of other parents out there who aren’t independently wealthy, are very happy that our children will not have to endure student loan debt due to the funding provided by the Tribe through the Higher Education Program.  I know we’re quite grateful.

Now, let me state that this is my viewpoint based on our experiences.  I am fully aware that others have faced challenges and just outright issues with the program over the years and I do not mean to diminish your viewpoints.  I’m just sharing our experience, and I have seen the program work diligently to address and improve upon a lot of those issues over the years so hopefully they are few and far between these days.

One piece of advice I will pass along to families about to start the process with their student is to be organized.  Attend orientation and get your paperwork in order.  Keep records and keep on top of deadlines.  They are deadlines for a reason.

One thing that is indisputable is that the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has a bright future full of educated members.

For more information on the Tribal Higher Education program, call 359-6650 or visit: