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Colleges are making tuition free for Native students. Will more students graduate?

Gabriella Trujillo for NPR

Growing up in Santa Rosa, Calif., Kayley Walker put sports at the center of her life. She was on the track and field team, doing shotput and discus. After high school, she went to a community college near her home before transferring to the University of California, Davis in the fall of 2020.

There, half of her tuition was covered by her tribe – the Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians – but the other half was up to her. This summer, as she geared up to start her fifth year of college, coming up with that tuition money was weighing on her.

But starting in September, Walker will have her tuition covered, part of a new initiative through the University of California systemto make tuition free for Native students.

"It just kind of it takes a really big weight off my shoulders to know that I'm covered," Walker said. It also opened up an opportunity she never thought possible: applying for a Master's degree.

The UC system, the largest in the nation, is part of a growing number of schools to make tuition free for Native students. In June, the University of Arizona announced free tuition for students who are enrolled with a federally recognized tribe in Arizona. This fall, Oregon State University will grant in-state tuition for every federally-recognized Native student, regardless of where they live.

These programs aim to support Native students, who had the highest dropout rates out of any ethnic group in the country during the pandemic. But it's not just a pandemic issue, Native student enrollment has been on the decline since 2008.

Low college-going numbers are related to high school graduation numbers. Native students have a high school graduation rate of 74%, compared to their white peers with 89% according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Affordability in itself is a challenge for Native students, related to a lack of generational wealth in communities. A report in 2020 showed 51 percent of Native students had an expected family contribution – the amount of money the government deemed they had to pay for college – at $0. Native students also struggle with a sense of belonging at mainstream universities, where many faculty don't look like them.

Additionally, Native communities have a complicated relationship with education institutions in the U.S. Many universities are built on stolen Indigenous lands and Native communities have a traumatic history with government-supported boarding schools that still lingers today.

"There's a lot of systematic issues and political ramifications that people aren't aware of, which hinders economic mobility for Native students," said Amanda Tachine, an assistant professor of higher education at Arizona State University. "So when universities increase tuition, we're seeing this trend of also Native student enrollment decreasing."

Tachine, a citizen of Navajo Nation, argues it adds more reasons to why colleges should be supporting Native students.

This is where tuition waivers come in—they can help break down barriers for Native students.

Free tuition for Native students has a long history

Tuition waivers and discounts aren't a new trend, however. Tribal colleges, of which there are about three dozen nationwide based in Indigenous communities, have historically made tuition cost-effective.

The University of Maine has had a tuition waiver since the 1930s. Their waiver originally had limitations on the number of students that could apply from two nearby tribes – the Penobscot tribe and the Passamaquoddy tribe – but over time has expanded to allow an unlimited number of applicants.

Several states, including Montana and Michigan, offer free tuition for Native students attending public colleges in the state. These programs have been in effect since the 1970s. In Colorado, Fort Lewis College, a public liberal arts school that was once a federal boarding school for Native American children, has provided free tuition since 1911.

So have these tuition programs been successful? At Fort Lewis College, administrators are having an easier time recovering their enrollment drop felt in the pandemic. The school's data show that Native students are now enrolling and persisting at pre-pandemic levels. Officials cite the tuition program and the multiple supports on campus for students. In Montana, the state university system saw an 8 percent increase in the number of Native students enrolled over the past three years.

And the University of Maine was also able to retain its Native students during the pandemic at higher rates than the national average of41%. The university put a concerted effort into letting students know about the tuition program through the Wabanaki Center, a campus resource that offers programs for Native students.

John Bear Mitchell, a citizen of Penobscot Nation, runs the Native tuition waiver program at the university. Mitchell works with tribal education directors and does outreach to prospective students.

"We work with [Native students], we invite them and bring them to our events. We want them to be successful wherever they are," Mitchell says. "I think that's what makes us unique."

Administrators at the school credit that outreach and support with helping make sure their Native students graduate.

Universities across the nation are following suit. So why now?

Molly Hall-Martin, a citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux tribe and the director of W-SARA at the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, says there are multiple factors: more attention is being paid toward the land-grant university system, which has exposed how universities have financially benefited from sitting on stolen land, the land back movementwhich is part of a larger conversation around returning the political and economic control of land to Native people as a part of reparations and an increased consciousness on race-related issues after the murder of George Floyd.

"Institutions are being forced to pay attention to the voices they've chosen to ignore for decades, which includes Native students and Native communities," she said.

Free tuition is not enough, student supports are needed too

While tuition waivers help, so do university relationships with tribal communities and programs focused on supporting Native students.

"We're trying to stay connected to the communities and really be aware and be able to advocate for the nuanced needs of our Native students," says Brad Hall of the Blackfeet Nation and tribal outreach specialist at the University of Montana.

The University of Montana works directly with tribal colleges and high schools to help Native students pave their way into higher education. Hall points to a program started at Blackfeet Community College, where state colleges and tribal colleges now have a transfer pipeline for students studying social work.

In Colorado, Fort Lewis College hosts Indigenous healing events throughout the academic year and an annual powwow event known as Hozhoni Days. Additionally, in 2021, the college was awarded $950,000 to hire more Native American faculty.

Hall-Martin says schools can also provide living and learning communities for Native students. This could be in the form of consistent social and academic support, a meal plan or an elder in residence.

Tuition programs open doors — but not everyone is eligible

Michelle Villegas-Frazier, the director of the Native American Academic Student Success Center at UC Davis and Pinoleville Pomo, foresees these tuition programs boosting the number of Native students who attend and graduate from college. Once the University of California announced its program, Villegas-Frazier said she got calls from Native students eager to enroll or return to UC Davis.

"I've gotten many calls from families, or even older people who want to get a Master's and [go into a] Ph.D. program but could never afford it," she said. "Now they have this opportunity to come back to school."

While these programs aim to open up pathways to higher education, not every Native student is eligible. Some students belong to tribes not federally recognized, and others have been disenrolled. Other challenges come up with enrolling through descendancy: a person could have a family member adopted out, come from foster care and not have accessibility to documents to enroll in their tribe, or they don't meet their tribe's blood quantum requirement.

As universities expand programs offering free tuition to Native students, there are concerns about unenrolled Native students not receiving the same opportunities as their enrolled peers.

"It's going to be harder for some of our young people to take advantage of these programs," says Louise Ramirez, the tribal chairwoman of the Ohlone Esselen Nation. "There were no guidelines set up for them."

So how do universities include every Native student? Ramirez says these programs should require genealogy rather than tribal enrollment. Villegas-Frazier suggests universities work directly with tribes and nations to accommodate eligibility for non-federally recognized tribes.

"We're all happy that this is happening, " said Villegas-Frazier, "but for those students who may just recently been disenrolled it's a slap in the face."

The benefit brings optimism and relief to current students

Kayley Walker decided to transfer to UC Davis because of the university's supportive Native community and resources specific to Native students. There, she's spent the last 2 years studying communications and Native American studies. She's also stuck to track and field as a thrower with Davis' team.

She's hoping her degree in Native American studies will help her become a liaison between tribes and federal and state agencies on land management. With that role, she aspires to promote and perform cultural and prescribed burns.

With the new tuition waiver, Walker's next quarter at UC Davis will be more financially secure.

But, she said, it isn't enough to fully support Native students. She calls on more Native representation in faculty and more programs dedicated to Native students' needs. Implementing a tuition waiver, she said, it's just an invitation to the table.

"It's definitely a good start," she said. "But I don't think it's, by any means, all [universities] have to offer."

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Corrected: August 19, 2022 at 10:00 PM MDT
A previous version of this story cited outdated data to refer to the high school graduation rate of Native students. Nationally, high school graduation rates of Native students is 76.2%, not 49.3%.
Emma Hall