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Native American scholarships grow in popularity

State universities in Rhode Island and California now offer free tuition to members of certain tribes

A building on the University of Rhode Island campus in South Kingstown, R.I. Associated Press/Photo by Steven Senne, file

Native American scholarships grow in popularity

The University of Rhode Island earlier this month announced it had set aside $175,000 this year for a scholarship program available only for Native American students. Weeks earlier, the University of California launched a similar scholarship benefitting members of California tribes.

The announcements reflect what appears to be a growing trend in higher education: specialized tuition assistance for Native Americans.

The new programs also come just months before the U.S. Supreme Court plans to hear arguments in a challenge to race-based admissions policies at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina. Some observers wonder how the court’s decision in that case could affect tribal scholarships.

The University of California program will cover tuition and fees for students who are state residents and members of a federally recognized tribe. University of California spokesperson Stett Holbrook said in an email that school officials think this will include 500 undergraduate students and 160 graduate students.

The University of Rhode Island’s program will be much smaller, with school officials offering scholarships covering full tuition and fees for 15 students, all members of one specific tribe, the Narragansett Nation. In fall 2020, only 0.1 percent of the school’s 17,649-member student body were Native American students.

Cheryl Crazy Bull, president and CEO of the American Indian College Fund, said programs like these are rare. She said her organization provides scholarships for about 5,000 Native American students at tribal and mainstream schools.

Fort Lewis College in Colorado and the University of Minnesota, Morris, both former Native American boarding schools, have provided court-ordered free tuition for Native American students for about a century. Crazy Bull said that financial assistance programs for Native Americans typically include tuition waivers or, in Colorado’s case, offers of in-state tuition rates to out-of-state students who belong to tribes that historically lived in the state.

Native Americans are underrepresented in higher education and face financial barriers. According to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute, while 42 percent of U.S. adults over age 25 had a postsecondary degree in 2019, only 25 percent of Native American adults did. A March 2020 American Indian College Fund report found that 62 percent of students at tribal colleges or universities had experienced food insecurity in the past month, compared with 39 percent of students at other institutions.

Race-based scholarships, though, have proven legally tricky. George McClellan, professor of higher education at the University of Mississippi, said courts typically recognize colleges’ right to consider race in admissions or financial aid policies as long as they demonstrate a “compelling state interest” such as addressing historical wrongs or achieving student diversity, and “really narrowly tailor” their consideration of race. “You can’t just rely on one identity factor,” McClellan said, adding that schools that focus on diversity must also consider religious diversity, gender diversity, ethnic diversity, and inclusion of students with disabilities.

In Oregon, students from one of nine tribes in the state can qualify for a grant that covers tuition and fees if they have already applied for federal and state aid. Students can also apply the grant money toward fees at certain private schools in the state.

In the Supreme Court’s 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger decision, the justices ruled that the University of Michigan Law School’s race-conscious admissions policy was narrowly tailored and represented an appropriate school interest in diversity. (On the same day in 2003, the court ruled in Gratz v. Bollinger that the University of Michigan’s admission policies were not sufficiently narrowly tailored since nearly every minority student was accepted.)

Earlier this month, Students for Fair Admissions, an advocacy group that opposes affirmative action in college admissions, filed a brief asking the court to reverse Grutter. The group is challenging race-based admissions practices at Harvard and the University of North Carolina in a consolidated case that the justices will consider during the court’s 2022-2023 term.

Peter Lake, director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy at the Stetson University College of Law, worries that the Supreme Court decision on race-based admissions could potentially influence rules about scholarships. “Once you take that step into not permitting colleges to give preferences based on race or nationality, it potentially extends to Indigenous Americans and other nationalities,” he said.

Tribal scholarships don’t fit neatly into the race-based question, though. “Tribes are essentially foreign nations that have entered into agreements with the federal government,” Lake added. “There’s a certain amount of complexity—the legal relationships among institutions, whether federal or state government, and tribal rights—which I think does potentially play into this in some way, but we haven’t really tested it thoroughly.”

Additionally, Lake said that scholarship programs may face less pushback than admissions policies because admissions policies are a higher-stakes issue. “I think for admissions and why it’s been such a battleground, is it’s absolutely a zero-sum game: I get in, you don’t,” he said. “If somebody’s given a preference, that means somebody has been rejected.”

Thousands of Native Americans also attend several dozen tribal colleges and universities throughout the country where they can experience a campus community that reflects their ethnic culture. Could the growth of scholarship programs at state schools affect enrollment at these tribal colleges?

Crazy Bull doesn’t think so. “I wouldn’t call it a competition,” she said. “Our goal is for students to have a good experience wherever they choose to go to school. … Part of our job is to help students find the right fit.”

Juliet Maestas, the executive director of California Tribal College, isn’t worried about competition, either. Located about 10 miles north of the University of California, Davis, her school is pursuing accreditation through a partnership with Northwest Indian College. She noted the school’s mission is to be the foundation for students who later attend a four-year school.

Maestas said that colleges and universities need to look at how to help Native American students be prepared for higher education: “It’s one [thing] to say free tuition, but it’s also another thing to say, ‘How do we get them prepared to come through these doors?’”

Lauren Dunn

Lauren covers education for WORLD’s digital, print, and podcast platforms. She is a graduate of Thomas Edison State University and World Journalism Institute, and she lives in Wichita, Kan.

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