The 8 ways your college can help support Native American students

One university system is going a step further by offering free tuition to those who are from Tribal Nations.
By: | November 2, 2021
Photo courtesy of University of Minnesota

Institutions of higher education are celebrating Native American Heritage Month by honoring traditions on their campuses and extending further resources to an important but often underserved group of students.

This month might be the perfect time to ensure your campus is not only attracting new Native American and Indigenous students but also giving them the support they need to thrive.

The University of Minnesota system, which has provided welcoming spaces for 170 years, is going the extra mile for Native American populations by offering prospective students free and reduced tuition beginning in the fall of next year.

“We are taking a positive step forward in addressing the needs of indigenous peoples with a history that predates this state and institution—a step I sincerely hope will have a lasting impact on Tribal communities,” University President Joan Gabel said. “We have been very honest from my first days as president that we need to better serve citizens of our Tribal Nations and their communities. This program is a meaningful step toward increasing access and continuing to improve retention and graduation rates while closing opportunity gaps.”

The Native American Promise Tuition Program will give new Tribal Nation citizens students and undergraduates who transfer from a Tribal college free tuition at any of the university’s five campuses as long as their families make less than $75,000 per year. Those whose families earn less than $125,000 can still qualify for significant tuition cost savings at 80% or 90%. Qualifying candidates must submit a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and remain fully enrolled while carrying at least a 2.0 GPA.

Aside from the financial infusion, the University of Minnesota has made a massive commitment to building pipelines through Native American and Indigenous communities. Although the average four-year institution’s study body is just 1-2% Native American, they comprise 25% of the population on UMN’s Morris campus. The system features a department of American Indian Studies, a Native American Student Life center and a Circle of Indigenous Nations student services office.

It also has a new Senior Advisor to the President for Native American Affairs in Karen Diver, a former leader at the University of Arizona and a Special Assistant to President Barack Obama on Native American Affairs. She lauded the university’s new Promise initiative. “This level of financial assistance—along with the necessary support systems to help Native American students find a welcoming place within our University so they can complete their degree and graduate—can dramatically alter the course of an individual’s life,” Diver said. “Educational attainment is critical to sustaining healthy and prosperous communities, as well as self-determined citizens.”

Tips to help Native American students

According to data from the Postsecondary National Policy Institute, Native Americans 18-24 are only half as likely to attend higher education institutions than the rest of individuals their age in the U.S. The vast majority either are enrolled at two-year institutions or at Tribal colleges, or both. They are less likely to attend four-year institutions and far less likely to complete degrees, even after six years (40%). The pandemic has further exacerbated gaps in admissions and retention, with enrollment plunging an additional 13%.

But there are ways that colleges and universities can welcome Native American students and give them proper supports. Minnesota, for example, also features an American Indian Cultural House on its Twin Cities campus and an American Indian Learning Resource Center in Duluth as well as many curriculum offerings.

College leaders seeking to boost supports to Native American students should be asking a series of questions that are different from other diverse groups, according to the American Council on Education *(ACE):

Is curriculum inclusive and respectful of Native American and other Indigenous people? Does your campus or system “honor tribal leadership?” Are systems and resources strong enough to support them and their needs? How well is your college or university promoting Native American heritage and resources and providing data that shows your institution is indeed assisting them? And have all of your faculty, staff and administrators been trained on the culture, history, racism and potential biases of Native Americans?

Many of Minnesota’s efforts mirror those suggested by the ACE, whose top list of ideas and strategies includes:

  1. Ensuring there is Native American representation in faculty
  2. Starting a Native American Studies department
  3. Having a support center that specifically handles Native American and Indigenous students
  4. Allowing for students to have private gathering spaces on campus
  5. Partnering with Native American and Indigenous nations on memorandums of understanding
  6. Hiring a liaison that can work with local and state tribes
  7. Increasing the number of Native Americans in staff leadership positions and on Boards
  8. Honoring both the land and history of Native Americans on campus.