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A female Navajo high school student sits at a desk in a classroom, smiling at the camera, her pencil poised over an exam.

Scholarships meant to uplift Indigenous American students should expand eligibility and allow students to use federal aid for living expenses if they truly want to right historical wrongs.

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In 2022, several states, postsecondary systems and individual institutions launched new grant programs for Indigenous American students. California, New Mexico and Oregon announced tuition-free college programs for Indigenous American students. Portland State University began offering in-state tuition to out-of-state Indigenous American students, while Metropolitan State University of Denver began offering free tuition to any students enrolled in federally recognized tribal nations. The University of Minnesota system also implemented what it called its “nation-leadingNative American Promise Tuition Program.

Postsecondary leaders promoted the initiatives as necessary steps to right the harm inflicted on tribal communities and support their current Indigenous American students. While these scholarship programs represent a step forward in supporting Indigenous college students, I provide several critiques and recommendations for improving their overall impact.

Limited Promises

Several Indigenous American scholarship programs mirror the development of promise programs in the United States. Tuition-free programs, commonly known as promise programs, often include restrictions that limit student eligibility (and the cost of offering the program). The majority of promise programs now incorporate a last-dollar funding structure (promise funds are applied only after all other aid), which limit benefits among students who have the most need.

For example, in a typical last-dollar program, federal Pell Grants are applied to tuition and fees prior to promise funding. Since the Pell Grant typically covers most of tuition and fees at community colleges, very little promise funding is used to support low-income students. Instead, last-dollar promise programs without income criteria run the risk of subsidizing middle- and upper-income students.

Promise programs, in essence, became affordable marketing tools to boost enrollment with the added benefit of increasing the amount of federal funding flowing through postsecondary systems.

Why Does This Matter for Indigenous American Scholarships?

Several recent Indigenous American scholarships unfortunately replicate the last-dollar structure of current promise programs. Oregon’s new Tribal Student Grant, for example, is a last-dollar program “intended to cover the average cost of attendance after all federal and state grants/scholarships have been applied.” Similarly, Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Indigenous and Native Peoples’ Grant is a last-dollar award that supplements “the gap between any federal or state grants received” and the cost of tuition and fees.

The University of Minnesota system’s Native American Promise Tuition Program is also a last-dollar program that requires students to be an enrolled member in one of Minnesota’s 11 federally recognized tribal nations. Requiring tribal enrollment is common among Indigenous American scholarship programs—and I worry it limits their efficacy and cost to the institution, system or state.

‘Enrolled Member’

In the United States, enrollment in a federally recognized tribal nation in many cases requires an individual to have a certain percentage of Indigenous blood as measured through genealogy (a system known as “blood quantum”). Many individuals raised in Indigenous families and communities do not meet the blood quantum requirements necessary to enroll as tribal citizens.

While many tribal nations choose to continue using this standard as a determinant of membership, blood quantum stemmed from federal policy as a way to limit enrollment in tribal nations. To some, blood quantum policies are legally veiled mechanisms for the continued genocide of tribal nations. Why do postsecondary institutions perpetuate an arguably genocidal understanding of tribal membership?

In a Q&A about the new Indigenous American Opportunity Plan, the University of California system, which is barred under state law from considering race in admission and financial aid decisions, states, “UC can provide financial aid to students based on their membership in federally recognized tribes because such membership is legally deemed a political classification, rather than a racial classification.”

However, both Fort Lewis College in Colorado and the University of Minnesota at Morris offer tuition waivers to Indigenous American college students, regardless of state residency or family income, that are open to tribal members and descendants. Their long-standing programs were implemented as part of federal agreements to provide tuition-free education to Indigenous American students in exchange for land.

Let me be clear: I am not a lawyer. But land currently occupied by postsecondary institutions in the U.S. was inhabited originally by Indigenous American tribes and forcefully seized. The federal government then reallocated this stolen land to public postsecondary institutions and systems, often disregarding treaties mutually agreed upon with tribal nations. If postsecondary leaders and policy makers truly wanted to right the wrongs of the past and uplift tribal communities, I’d argue that there is legal precedent to include both tribal members and descendants in Indigenous American scholarship programs.

Any such policies could face legal scrutiny, especially considering the current political climate. The Supreme Court is currently considering the legality of race-conscious admissions in postsecondary education. While I disagree with scholarship structures that require membership in a federally recognized tribal nation, I do understand the reluctance of creating a program that will inevitably result in lawsuits and prolonged legal battles.

Bait and Switch

More broadly, my critique of last-dollar Indigenous American scholarships reflects my criticisms of modern promise programs. States and postsecondary institutions and systems openly publicize their free college programs for Indigenous Americans. But due to strict eligibility requirements and last-dollar structures, several of the programs appear to be no more than affordable marketing tools and public relations opportunities.

In the University of Minnesota system, only 18 of 146 Indigenous American freshmen received any funding from the Native American Promise Tuition Program in its first year, despite a 7.6 percent increase in enrollment systemwide among Indigenous American students. Minnesota’s last-dollar program, and others structured similarly, are low-cost programs that may limit participation due to their strict eligibility requirements based on controversial (if not outright discriminatory) tribal membership policy.

Next Steps

The increase in scholarships, of any type, supporting Indigenous American college students is an important step forward. But Indigenous American scholarships should not simply be another mechanism for universities to improve public perception of their tribal relations. This is an opportunity for policy makers and postsecondary educational leaders to truly work toward partially righting the harm inflicted upon tribal communities. My recommendations for improving current and future scholarship programs for Indigenous college students include:

  • Utilize a first-dollar funding structure and/or provide additional financial aid for low-income students. Several scholarship programs include financial assistance for nontuition expenses by providing first-dollar funding or additional funding for low-income students. For example, in New Mexico’s program, students can “stack federal aid such as Pell grants, local scholarships and private scholarships to help pay for books, materials, housing, food, transportation, child care and other college costs.”
  • Expand eligibility to descendants. As previously stated, both Fort Lewis College in Colorado and the University of Minnesota at Morris offer tuition waivers to Indigenous American college students, both tribal members and descendants.

Why Did I Write This Article?

I grew up in Wisconsin identifying as a Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican. I lived on our reservation briefly as a child and visit often today (my mother and grandparents still live there). My grandma guest taught in my elementary school classrooms in her traditional regalia and shared our tribe’s history and culture. I’m also a first descendant, meaning I am not an enrolled citizen of our tribe and did not receive any funding from my state or tribe while attending college. My hope is that I can be an advocate for all Indigenous college students to receive the support they need to thrive in college and beyond.

Gresham D. Collom is a research affiliate at University of Wisconsin at Madison, an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and an incoming assistant professor of higher education administration at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota.

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