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WASHINGTON - American Indian educators appealed Tuesday for more federal money for tribal colleges and universities.

The request came the same day as the release of a report describing tribal colleges as a critical element to improving the lives of impoverished Indians. That report was compiled by the American Indian Higher Education Consortium and the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

"In many ways we are the only hope of these tribal communities," Tommy Lewis, president of Northwest Indian College in Bellingham, Wash., said during a news conference in the Capitol.

The nation's 32 tribal colleges and universities have an enrollment of about 6,800 students, 80 percent of whom are Indians.

In the current fiscal year, the tribal colleges were given $3,849 per student. The colleges seek $4,500 per student for the 2002 fiscal year, or about $651 more per student. President Bush's proposed budget would boost spending per student by about $104.

In addition, the colleges seek to increase the spending on grants from the $37 million appropriated this year to $43.4 million for 2002 - or about $5.4 million more than what Bush wrote into his budget plan.

The college presidents also asked Congress to more than double Title III endowments to tribal colleges, for a total of $2 million.

The colleges say they need the additional money for the core costs of running the colleges, such as faculty salaries. But the money would also be used to buy new computers, build new classrooms and expand programs into critical areas like nursing and teaching.

The report issued Tuesday, "Building Strong Communities, Tribal Colleges as Engaged Institutions," argues in favor of subsidizing tribal colleges as a means of improving tribal economies.

With seven of the 32 colleges in his home state, Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., takes a special interest in their plight, said spokesman Jon Lindgren.

And as chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior, Burns is in a position to coax through an increasing in spending on tribal colleges, Lindgren said.

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