Welcome to Race on Campus. Over the past few months, several institutions — including two state-university systems — have announced that Native American students will no longer have to pay tuition. What inspired the decisions, and will the commitments last?

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A Tuition-Free Trend

In the past few months, the University of California system, Metropolitan State University of Denver, the University of Minnesota system, and the State of Oregon have all moved to waive tuition for the vast majority of their Native American students.

Campus officials say the move demonstrates their commitment to enrolling and supporting more students from Indigenous backgrounds, who often face financial barriers to attending college and have historically persisted at lower rates than most of their peers.

Given the small number of Native students over all, it’s not a huge burden for colleges. But higher education experts say it’s important to preserve the commitment over time to ensure the programs last and grow.

The UC system’s announcement in April made a big splash. First, university leaders said that in-state students who are members of federally recognized American Indian and other Native American tribes will have their tuition and fees waived starting this fall. Then, the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria said it would create a $2.5-million scholarship fund to provide tuition and fees for California Native students from non-federally recognized tribes.

About a week later, Metropolitan State University of Denver made a similar announcement, saying it would cover Colorado residents’ tuition and fees from federally recognized nations through a new grant.

The University of Minnesota system, meanwhile, will start its Native American Promise Tuition Program in the fall semester of 2022. The program is an expansion of the full tuition waiver on the Morris campus for students from federally recognized tribes, direct descendants of a parent or grandparent who is an enrolled member of a federally recognized tribe, or a direct descendant of a tribally verified member of a federally recognized tribe.

In Oregon, the state legislature took the lead by creating the Oregon Tribal Student Grant, a $19-million fund that covers the average college cost for students from nine federally recognized tribes in Oregon to attend a public community college or university. The program, however, is funded for only the next academic year.

Shawn Brick, director of financial aid for the UC system, credits Michael V. Drake, the system’s president, with the vision for its program. Shortly after Drake started at UC in 2020, he asked staff members about how the system could cover Native students’ tuition costs and to outline any parameters or limitations, Brick said. Among other things, the staff studied similar programs in Washington and Oregon to inform the UC model.

To pay for the program, Brick said, the system uses tuition revenue set aside for financial aid. This coming academic year, 45 percent of new tuition revenue will be set aside for financial aid. That approach should ensure a certain amount of longevity for the Native-student scholarship, said Elizabeth Halimah, associate vice provost for graduate, undergraduate, and equity affairs. for the UC system.

In the fall of 2021, 0.41 percent of undergraduate applicants to the UC system were American Indian, according to university system data. Ten years before, in the fall of 2011, 0.71% were American Indian. The group’s enrollment numbers are similar.

Doing the right thing for California Native American students is the goal and increasing application and enrollment numbers for Native Americans is also important. The system will then evaluate the program by looking at student outcomes and graduation rates, Brick said.

Beyond a Tuition Waiver

At Metropolitan State University of Denver, the grant program came together in a few weeks, said Will Simpkins, vice president for student affairs. In the fall of 2021, about 0.4 percent of Metropolitan State’s undergraduates identified as American Indian or Alaska Native, and 0.2 percent identified as Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, according to university data.

In a meeting this spring, Simpkins said, senior administrators were discussing the expansion of the university’s Displaced Aurarian Scholarship. The program was created for the people who lived in the Auraria neighborhood before the City of Denver displaced families to build Metropolitan State and the Community College of Denver. The expansion, announced in November, covers tuition and fees for children and grandchildren of displaced Aurarians. The university has awarded that scholarship to 305 students since 1995, wrote John Arnold, senior director of communications.

A colleague said that they wished the university would also offer tuition and fees to Native students, and that such a move would build on the mission of that scholarship.

Staff members estimated future Native student enrollment. They also evaluated these students’ state grants, and how much they were still paying to the university. Based on students’ self-reported identities, officials estimated that it would cost Metropolitan State about $200,000 a year, Simpkins said. Luckily, the Board of Trustees approved the new grant.

In May, the Colorado state legislature passed a bill to provide state funding for the Displaced Aurarian Scholarship, allocating $2 million to the University of Colorado at Denver, Metropolitan State University of Denver, and the Community College of Denver. As of last month, the bill is still waiting for the governor’s signature.

The hope is that the Native-student grant will eventually receive similar funding, Simpkins said. For now, the money comes from the university’s operating budget.

And Metropolitan State is going beyond the tuition waiver. The university recently bumped up a part-time graduate-assistant position that works with the Native community to a full-time position, Simpkins said. That student will, among other things, help the university sort through the documents that the finance office needs to award students the grant and provide additional support for students.

Kyla Aguirre, a junior majoring in political science at Metropolitan State and a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, said she never expected to receive a grant of this size. Aguirre, vice president of the Native Indigenous Student Alliance, said her husband works while she attends classes, and lately money has been tight. She was unsure if they would be able to keep paying her tuition.

With the new grant, Aguirre said she can breathe easier. Now her plans to attend law school after graduation seem more doable — with less debt.

But it’s not just about money. If the Native community isn’t supported, Aguirre said, then students could face a new set of problems, like isolation, when they get to campus. Aguirre and other students asked administrators to create a support-staff position for Native students.

This month the university did just that. The job ad sought a program coordinator “to support and create conditions that empower underrepresented Bipoc student populations at MSU Denver with particular attention to the experience of Native and Indigenous students.”

Some students might think free tuition for the Native community is unfair, Aguirre said. “This isn’t free,” she said. “Our ancestors paid for this in blood.”

Read Up.

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