University of Wisconsin Project Seeks to Connect Indigenous Students With Financial Aid Resources

By Maria Carrasco, NASFAA Staff Reporter

When Gresham Collom, a first descendant of the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican Tribe in Wisconsin, was first applying to college, he assumed that he didn’t have access to any college funding. But a few years later when his younger sister was applying for college, he discovered there were two colleges in the U.S. that offered students who were first descendants of Native American tribes free tuition.

Now an education policy researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Collom is using his own experience as inspiration to develop a tool for Native American students to see what scholarships, grants, and other programs are available to use as a resource to afford college. 

That’s how the latest project out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Student Success Through Applied Research (SSTAR) Lab was born. With grant funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the SSTAR Lab in the next two years will create a searchable database that identifies funding programs throughout the U.S. that specifically support Indigenous students based on tribal affiliation. 

“Thinking about my own experience, and then some other folks I know who are enrolled [tribe] members that didn't know there were tuition-free programs out there for them, that's kind of where the inspiration for this idea came from,” Collom said. “During my Ph.D. at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, I did a lot of work on free college programs. This was the perfect merger of my research background and personal background.”

The team is working on piloting a user interface this year where students will be able to filter their information and see every single scholarship and grant program that they're eligible for nationwide. Collom said he envisions an interactive map where students can click on more information on what scholarships and grants entail. 

The SSTAR Lab will also create a dataset for policymakers and researchers interested in developing and studying financial aid programs for Native American students. The project will be co-lead with Nick Hillman, a UW-Madison education professor and director of the SSTAR Lab. 

“I think we have a lot of room to grow our research community around racial implications, ethnic implications, and inequities that come with our student aid programs,” Hillman said. “I think we've done a good job over several years of doing that, but there's just not enough financial aid research and scholarships directly dealing with Indigenous students' experiences.”

The news of this project comes as multiple states and institutions have announced free tuition programs and other scholarships for Native American students. Some examples include the University of Arizona’s Arizona Native Scholars Grant program, Minnesota’s American Indian Scholars Program, the University of California System’s UC Native American Opportunity Plan, and more. 

Collom noted that while free tuition programs are a great first step for institutions to support Indigenous students, they still face other expenses, such as housing, child care, and books and supplies. He previously wrote about the issue for Inside Higher Ed on how many scholarship programs targeted toward Indigenous students — and free tuition programs more broadly — may fall short. 

While Collom said his primary goal for this project is to get scholarships and grant money in the hands of Indigenous students, he also hopes this project inspires policymakers and institutions to create more programs and provide more funds for Indigenous students to go to college. 

“I was in that same boat when I was 18,” Collom said. “I didn't think I had the opportunity to travel out of state for school because it was too expensive. I want to show Indigenous students that whether it's in state, it's your local community college, or it's somewhere way out of state, there are opportunities for you to go to school at a low cost, or even free.”

Hillman echoed that sentiment, adding that he hopes the tool can create conversations between Indigenous students and families to discuss how they can afford college through different scholarships and grant programs. 

“It'd be pretty awesome if this tool also sparked some conversations around the dinner table for families and for students,” Hillman said. “They could say ‘Hey, check this thing out that I just found’ … and just kind of spark these informal conversations. Even if a student doesn't use it immediately, they might share it and they might use it eventually.” 


Publication Date: 8/3/2023

Nicholas Z | 8/3/2023 9:35:35 AM

In addition to financial aid awards, grants, and scholarships, some state institutions will grant resident status to tribally affiliated students who may be initially considered a non-resident. This is a great initiative and is very much needed.

Kari E | 8/3/2023 9:27:20 AM

The link provided in this article for the Minnesota American Indian Scholars Program is incorrect, it is currently linking to a different scholarship opportunity that has been available for many years. The new program can be found here:


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