Tuition Waiver for Native Students Must Be Replicated Nationwide

Now is the time for all higher education systems in America to waive tuition for Native American students, regardless of residency, tribe or which college they attend. This would help fulfill the longstanding educational goals of our American Indian Education Fund (AIEF), the American Indian College Fund and other Native nonprofits to increase higher education access for Native American students.

Contrary to what many U.S. citizens believe, college is not free for Native Americans, and only now are we seeing movement along those lines. Recently, the University of California higher education system announced it would waive tuition and student services fees for all California residents who are members of federally recognized tribes; we’ve seen a select few state school systems do this. Some schools now guarantee admission for certain tribal members, like the Potawatomi to Notre Dame or the Seminoles to Florida State. Fort Lewis College in Colorado, a former Indian boarding school turned public liberal arts college with Indigenous students comprising more than 10% of its student body, now waives tuition and fees for any student with enrollment in a federally recognized tribe. Going even further, states such as New Mexico and Oklahoma now guarantee education access for all residents – Native and non-Native alike.

All this is a welcome step forward. But across the U.S., there are many more Native students who are not covered by these tuition and fee waivers or college funding from their tribes. In fact, the exorbitant costs of a college education in this country are out of reach for many, and for every Native student who applies for an AIEF scholarship, approximately six more are awaiting funding.

In addition, while 574 tribes are federally recognized, more than 400 other tribes are not – making college loans the next best option. However, low wages or joblessness, family commitments and persistent food and housing insecurity make large college loans unfeasible for so many Native families, especially those living on rural and remote reservations. How are Native students to excel under these conditions?

Tuition waivers are a significant way for higher education institutions to increase the number of talented Native students attending their schools, open the doors to opportunity and make up for a legacy of underrepresentation while confronting a shameful legacy in American history. Today, the discovery of mass graves at many former boarding school sites reminds us about this horrific legacy that our people must navigate. Moreover, it seems our government is only now reflecting on the ways in which our nation must address the atrocities these federal boarding schools generated. Higher education institutions can also follow suit. 

Higher education has long been the pathway to the so-called ‘American Dream’ – but the descendants of the original inhabitants of this land need a chance to be a part of it. I genuinely hope the size and impact of the University of California system and its decision to waive tuition and fees for select Native students will influence more and bigger national changes. Our Native American students need a pathway to be future leaders and to have a seat at the table shaping the policies and practices that will impact Tribal communities and our country going forward.

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