Free Tuition Programs for Indigenous Students Pick Up Steam Across the Country

By Maria Carrasco, NASFAA Staff Reporter

Just within this year, multiple institutions across the country have announced programs that would provide free tuition to Indigenous students. Some experts say it’s part of a growing trend. 

In June, the University of Arizona announced its new Arizona Native Scholars Grant program, which will cover tuition and mandatory fees for full-time undergraduate students from Arizona’s 22 federally recognized tribes who are studying on the main campus in Tucson.

The program covers tuition and fees for new and continuing full-time, degree-seeking, in-state undergraduates. To be eligible, undergraduate students must complete the FAFSA and provide tribal identification. The university states Native American tribes' federal legal status allows universities to administer scholarships and grants to tribal members.

Art Young, FAAC®, the executive director for the Office of Scholarships & Financial Aid at the University of Arizona, said the program is something he and his office have been working on for several years. 

While the program will be administered by the university’s enrollment management team, Young said his office was involved in identifying students, making projections about how much the program would cost, and including the program in its ongoing budget decisions about the best ways to utilize the university’s institutional aid dollars. 

“This is the next step in our ongoing commitment to serving those students and providing extra support and resources to ensure their success on campus,” Young said. “Of course, the end goal is for more of them to have access to the educational programs that they're interested in. And then of course, to be successful and complete and graduate is the long-term goal.”

The university states over 400 students who were enrolled last year meet the criteria for the new program. However, Young said the university is projecting and hoping that more potential students will enroll and take advantage of the program as it becomes more popular.

“We're hoping that this will really allow a lot more Native students, both from Arizona and from neighboring areas, to be able to really further their education and make a generational impact on their lives and their families,” Young said. 

Additionally, the University of California System, which has 10 campuses across the state, announced in April its UC Native American Opportunity Plan, which will waive tuition and fees beginning in fall 2022 for Native American students who are state residents and members of federally recognized tribes.

The program will cover tuition and student service fees for undergraduate and graduate students who are members of one of the 109 federally recognized Native American, American Indian, and Alaska Native tribes in the state. Qualifying students will be contacted by the University of California with further instructions and will need to provide documentation of their tribal enrollment. 

UC System President Michael Drake wrote in a letter to UC chancellors that the funds for the program will come from "existing State and University financial aid programs as well as other resources.” Scholarships to cover tuition for California residents from tribes that are not federally recognized might be available later through other organizations, according to Drake’s letter. 

Shawn Brick, executive director of student financial support at the University of California Office of the President, said the process of creating this program along with other financial aid directors across the system’s 10 campuses was a “bit of a learning curve.”

Brick said by working with experts, he and other financial aid administrators learned about what kinds of documentation tribes provide to their members and how to fairly implement the program. 

“There's a chapter in the FSA Handbook that has photos of the different kinds of documentation for other purposes, so we had to build that ourselves to know what sorts of documentation we can request from students,” Brick said. 

Brick said the UC System estimates about 500 undergraduates and 140 graduate students could qualify for the waived tuition and fees, but official numbers will be released once the semester begins this fall. 

“This announcement is moving ahead in an area where I think the university in the past may have had some risk aversion and was a little reluctant,” Brick said. “This feels like it's really sort of a step forward in terms of social justice.”

Other institutions that have made similar announcements include the Metropolitan State University of Denver in May and the University of Utah in July. 

While some institutions are creating free tuition programs, other institutions — such as Portland State University — are taking other approaches. Portland State announced in July it will offer in-state tuition to out-of-state Native American students. Chuck Knepfle, Portland State’s vice president of enrollment management, said in a statement the move is a “small way to honor the legacy of Indigenous nations from across the country.” 

Scott Skaro, director of financial aid at United Tribes Technical College (UTTC) and former NASFAA diversity officer, said the recent wave of free tuition programs for Indigenous students is a “big step for the rest of the nation.” 

Skaro noted that UTTC in 2016 was one of the first institutions to provide free tuition to students enrolled in a federally recognized tribe. He said within recent years, more tribal colleges have been working to provide free tuition to Indigenous students. 

The reason UTTC decided to make tuition free for Indigenous students was because the college wanted to no longer participate in the federal student loan program, but also wanted to provide an investment in their students, Skaro said. 

“We have students from 50 different tribes across the country come to our college,” Skaro said. “So there's a lot of anxiety there as far as uprooting the lives and moving. I think providing free tuition kind of gives them peace of mind as far as the financial side of it.” 

Derek Kindle, NASFAA’s current diversity officer and vice provost for enrollment management at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the move to provide free tuition to Indigenous students opens a door for those who are considering college — and even students who might not have considered college at all. 

“Indigenous students, like many other marginalized groups, also suffer economic injustices over time,” Kindle said. “So, letting students know that a particular proportion of college costs or tuition specifically is covered gives them something to aim toward and provides a sense of stability or reliability needed in the financial conversations about how they'll fund their education.”

Kindle noted that he thinks the decision to provide free tuition for Indigenous students has been picking up momentum, but recognized some institutions might not have the resources to create these programs. 

“It's definitely a trending practice and I don't know how widespread it will get,” Kindle said. “I do think that students, tribal nations, and just the general public are paying more attention to this. I do think more and more of [these programs] will happen within the next year or so. But if I'm being honest with you, unfortunately, we know some things are just like the flavor of the day.” 


Publication Date: 8/23/2022

Zach G | 8/23/2022 2:45:33 PM

I know my friends out there in the Scholarship community would also advocate that institutions address their "scholarship displacement" policies. Covering tuition & fees is an incredible program. If the institution only goes in with last dollar awards after Pell and other outside scholarships such that the student still has to cover the other indirect COA components, there is still room to grow these programs in an even more positive direction. All the same, great work to these institutions.

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