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Tribal Colleges And Student Loan Access: Challenges And Opportunities

Tribal Colleges And Student Loan Access: Challenges And Opportunities

The first study of its kind has found that homelessness, food insecurity and debt are common challenges for Indigenous students in higher education.

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As a teenager, Greta Gustafson was sure she wanted to be a veterinarian. But when it came time to choose a college, she didn’t have the financial means to simply apply to colleges with the best veterinary programs. She could only afford to apply to a handful of universities and ended up at Montana State University, which stood out for its relatively inexpensive tuition, said Gustafson, who grew up on the Blackfoot Reservation in Browning, Montana, and went to Mandan, Hidatsa. and the Arikara Nation.

“One of the reasons I stayed in the state was purely financial constraints,” Gustafson said. “And if that wasn’t a factor, I really think I probably would have gone somewhere else just for professional growth and life experience. I am satisfied with where I studied. It turned out to be very helpful, but [finances] were a limiting factor in the application process.”

A national study of college affordability for Native American students found that financial barriers often determine where Native Americans go to college and whether they graduate after enrolling. A landmark study released at the start of the 2022-2023 academic year of nearly 2,800 current and former Indigenous college students found that half of participants chose a post-secondary institution based on cost of attendance. Women are overrepresented among Native students, making up 63 percent of current college students and 58 percent of former students surveyed for the report by the National Native American Scholarship Program (NNSP)—composed of the Cobell Scholarship Program, the American Indian College Fund, the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, and the Foundation indigenous scientists.

“We believe this is the largest dataset of its kind and one of the first of its kind,” said Angelique Albert, CEO of the Native Forward Scholars Fund. “Often, we indigenous people are the star. There is no data. There is limited data. We’re statistically insignificant and all, so it’s nice to have a baseline that people can use.”

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The study found that 72 percent of students reported running out of money at least once in the past six months, while more than a quarter experienced food insecurity and 16 percent experienced homelessness during their higher education. More than 30 percent of former domestic students called the first year of college the most difficult in financial terms. Many current and former students come from families with an annual income of less than $20,000 and struggle to meet the unexpected costs of health care, transportation, housing, technology, and books while in college.

“The number one barrier to college completion for our Native students is affordability,” Albert said. “And this is what we as fellows know and see every day. We speak to students who call and ask for emergency funding. I’ve also talked to students who had to make a decision between owning a home and going to school, and they chose to live without a car to go to school. It shows commitment to their education, but at the same time their basic needs are not being met.”

Funding for the College Affordability Study was made possible by a 30-month grant the American Indian College Foundation received from the Lumina Foundation, which works to make access to higher education more equitable. Terri Taylor, Lumina’s strategic director of innovation and discovery, said it’s important to highlight the specific challenges of Indigenous students because they are different from other groups, including other students of color.

Tribal Colleges And Student Loan Access: Challenges And Opportunities

“It’s not just availability in a vacuum,” Taylor said. “It’s an understanding of the unique experiences that these students bring. Many of them attend college so they can bring new knowledge, experiences, connections and resources back to their tribal communities. If the barriers to access are too high, it blocks the opportunity for local students to bring it all back to their communities.”

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The fact that Native American women are more represented in college than Native American men is particularly significant. When women are empowered, Taylor said, they typically empower their entire family. “It immediately increases the likelihood that their own children will go to college and have a financially stable future,” she noted. “Often women take care of their parents or other family members. Now they’re working at higher levels, and that’s why Native women go to college in part to serve their communities and their families.”

In its 53-year history, Native Forward has supported more than 20,000 scholars, and 60 to 70 percent of its funding goes to women, Albert said. The organization has made it a mission to provide comprehensive services during the COVID-19 pandemic by launching an emergency fund to help students pay for food, housing, gas, transportation and other living expenses to keep them out of school. According to the College Affordability Study, only 36.2 percent of Indigenous students who entered four-year colleges in 2014 completed the program in six years, compared to 60.1 percent of all students.

Gustafson, now 24 and a doctoral student at Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, found it difficult to manage her finances as a student. She went from relying on her parents to provide her living expenses to developing a personal budget that couldn’t exceed her student loan and scholarship. “Budgeting was probably one of the hardest things I struggled with my freshman year, aside from keeping up with schoolwork, passing classes, and just getting through the transition to being a college student,” she said. Gustafson would have appreciated a course on money management before starting his college career, an intervention the NNSP study also recommends.

Students who don’t have access to emergency funding often go into debt trying to cover their expenses, the report says. Thirty-four percent of former students relied on subsidized loans to make ends meet during college, 30 percent took out unsubsidized loans, 25 percent used credit cards and 11 percent relied on private loans. More than half of students borrowed $5,000 or less, and 22 percent borrowed between $10,000 and $30,000.

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Some states and public university systems offer free tuition to Native American students, but there are limits on what Native Americans are eligible for funding. They may need to be enrolled in a federally recognized tribe or meet blood count requirements to be eligible. Although their tuition may be covered, these students are still responsible for paying other college expenses. And in some places, the free education programs did not take off as planned.

“Michigan had a law that required the state to pay for scholarships for Native students who were affected by Michigan taking land from Native peoples,” Taylor said. “It turns out that no funds were allocated for scholarships then. I think it’s a myth that a lot of Indigenous students go to college for free.”

Increasing the size of Pell Grants, the need-based financial aid awarded to students by the federal government, and offering more scholarships and other funding could give Native Americans more opportunities during college. Albert said she regularly encounters Indigenous youth who don’t want to attend elite colleges and universities because of the cost. Last year, she served a student who was accepted to the University of California, Berkeley, and was ready to go to school. But when the student learned about the cost of attending, she no longer wanted to go. Her family filed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) incorrectly, depriving her of much-needed financial aid. Ultimately, Albert and her team helped the family amend its FAFSA to receive more financial aid.

Tribal Colleges And Student Loan Access: Challenges And Opportunities

Although both of Gustafson’s parents attended college — her father is a veterinarian — they couldn’t put her through the FAFSA process because they were paying for her college education in other ways, she said. Other than an hour-long FAFSA information session at her high school, she had no help filling out the application.

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“There was nothing to help me figure out how I was going to pay for school, how to apply for a student loan, and what my options were,” she said. “So it was definitely a disservice. I went to a rural, very small high school and we didn’t have a lot of resources or school counselors or counselors to help us try to apply to schools or financial aid. And it was kind of simple

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