You Wanted to Know: Do Indians Have a Free Ride to College?

Question: “Do Indians have a free ride to college?”

Excerpt: “Although only a small percentage of Indians obtain significant financial help with college, I believe it would be perfectly fair if all Indians did get a free ride. As a matter of not only historical experience but also direct government policy, many Indian people have been made to suffer. They suffered not just in the nineteenth century during the height of violence; they suffer today.” (Everything You Wanted to Know, Anton Truer)Among the cumbersome misconceptions of contemporary Native American life, the idea of free college education for Native Americans is probably one of the greatest. Certainly, I agree with the excerpt above. “…it would be perfectly fair if all Indians did get a free ride.” Unfortunately, that isn’t the case.

With little effort one can easily dismiss this misconception by discovering some of the scholarships and grants open to Native applicants. If Indians were entitled to a free ride, then why would Native American and tribal scholarships exist?

There is no free ride. Like non-Native students, American Indians have to compete with their peers to gain access to limited scholarship and grant funding. Furthermore, Native students have to meet unique criteria for each specific American Indian scholarship, beyond the usual essays, letter of recommendations, SAT scores, and financial needs assessments. These unique criteria include providing a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood and, for many Native scholarships, enrollment in a specific tribe.

If anything, Native American students have to work harder than non-Native students to access scholarships and a college education. Combined with the underfunding of treaties for education and healthcare, lack of jobs, lack of access, and lack of policies to support economic progress and sustainability, Native students not only find it harder to fund higher education but are also placed at a severe disadvantage compared to their non-Native counterparts.

Incidentally, the “free ride” misconception continues to haunt Native students even after successfully funding their education. Jason Packineau of Harvard Native provided the following example:

“When I worked at the University of New Mexico’s Health Sciences Center supporting Native medical, pharmacy, nursing students, they heard many snide remarks about their supposed ‘free’ education, sometimes to their face.”

Considering the struggle that Native students face just getting into the classroom, this kind of unfounded harassment has the potential to further stress Native students who may be dealing with the pressures of being off the reservation for the first time, the first in their family to attend college, or day-to-day social prejudice unrelated to scholarships. On a positive note, I hope this mentality displayed by non-Natives will only serve to inspire the success of Native students.

On the whole, misconceptions and stereotypes about Native Americans will probably never fade, but it takes a strong society to acknowledge the humanity, experience, and struggles of others. It only takes common sense. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. After all, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Even if Native Americans were entitled to free post-secondary education, consider the historical costs already paid through the generations and continuing on to this day. 

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