U of M to offer free tuition to many Native American students

People cross a bridge with buildings in the background.
The University of Minnesota is expanding its Native American tuition support program to the entire U of M system.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2020

The University of Minnesota plans to extend “substantial financial support,” including in many cases completely free tuition, to enrolled members of the state’s 11 federally recognized tribal nations.

University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel announced the creation of the Native American Promise Tuition Program in a memo to the state’s tribal leaders, calling it a “significant expansion of Native American student tuition support.”

Starting in the fall of 2022, first-year students or tribal college transfer students whose families earn under $75,000 a year will be eligible for a scholarship covering full tuition. Students from families earning up to $100,000 would have 90 percent of their tuition covered and 80 percent for an annual income up to $125,000.

Students with family income above that level would not be eligible for the program.

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"They would be eligible for other scholarships and aid," said Karen Diver, the University’s senior adviser to the president for Native American affairs.

"The thinking behind it is that once you reach that level [of income], you have other supports in place, and the tuition would be less of a barrier."

Students already enrolled at the University are also not eligible for the program. Diver said starting only with incoming students allows the U to plan and get a better handle of the demand for the program in the future.

Students must maintain full-time enrollment and keep a 2.0 or better cumulative grade-point average. Students don’t need to be Minnesota residents to be eligible as long as they are a citizen of one of the state’s tribal nations.

“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,” Gabel said in a statement.

“This program is a meaningful step to increasing access and continuing to improve retention and graduation rates while closing opportunity gaps.”

A new opportunity

It’s not uncommon for many high school students to think that college might be out of reach for them. But for Shannon Geshick, it went even further than that. 

"I know, this sounds crazy. But I did not know that Native people could go to college. I didn't think that was a right, or opportunity reserved for us," she said. 

Geshick is now executive director of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council. She’s a citizen of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, and has a masters degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth in tribal administration and governance. 

Geshick and others say the new Native American Promise Tuition Program will show Native American students that college is a realistic option for them, and provide financial resources to help make it a reality.

"I think right now we're just basking in this new opportunity, and the opportunity that's going to give our Native students to access an institution that historically we've been denied access to."

There are only a handful of other states, including Michigan, that offer tuition waivers to Native American students.

In her memo to tribal leaders, Gabel called the expansion a “significant achievement” and said it will place the U of M’s program “among the nation’s most comprehensive free and reduced tuition programs for Native American students.”

The University's Morris campus has offered free tuition to Native American students for decades. More than 6,000 waivers have been awarded since Morris joined the U of M system in 1960.

The University of Minnesota Morris program is broader than the new system-wide program. It offers free tuition regardless of income, and is open to direct descendants of tribal members from the U.S. and Canada. 

More than a quarter of the student body there identifies as Native American. 

“Our students have been asking for this,” said University of Minnesota Morris Acting Chancellor Janet Schrunk Ericksen of the new program. “Others have been asking for this. And I think that anything that invites more Native American students into higher education is a good thing.”

She said removing the financial barrier is an important first step. “And if we remove this barrier, then I hope it helps more students consider a four year degree as an option," Schrunk Ericksen said. 

Advocates also say it will help many students graduate without significant student debt. 

Mary Owen, who directs the Center of American Indian and Minority Health at the University of Minnesota Medical School, said Native students enter medical school, or other health care professional programs, with some of the highest student debt load of any population. 

“That controls what students are able to do as far as their speciality after leaving, and sometimes it makes it less likely that students think they would be able to return to our communities to work,” she said 

Owen said Minnesota has one of the lowest graduation rates for Native Americans in the country. She said there are many students who qualify for college who can’t afford it. If this program only helps a few of those students, Owen said, that’s still significant. 

"For us, each student really matters. If you think about the fact that we only graduate 20 to 40 Native American physicians out of 20,000 each year, that gives you an idea how each body matters,” Owen said. 

A first step

Tribal communities have been asking for tuition assistance for tribal members for several years. 

The Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, which advises state government on issues important to the state’s tribes, asked for a tuition waiver similar to Michigan’s program in a resolution it adopted last summer.

Sam Strong, secretary of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa, said his tribe first made the request three years ago.

"One of the biggest barriers to getting a college education is funding,” Strong said. “And for our children, removing that barrier is a huge deal. And creating access to higher education is the way to uplift our community."

Strong said this is an important first step, one that gives him hope for the future. But he said more work needs to be done to correct other historic injustices committed against Native people. 

For example he said the University conducted what he called "inhumane" medical research on tribal members in the 1960s that's currently being investigated. And much of the University of Minnesota’s land base consists of land that, from the perspective of tribes, was stolen from them. 

"And so for me, by no means do I want to minimize this decision. But I do want to make sure to impress upon everyone that this is just a starting point, a great starting point. But something that needs to be built off of."

Strong wants to see the university invest in programs to prepare kids on the reservation for college, and to help students succeed once they’re at the university. 

The University of Minnesota’s Karen Diver, the former Chair of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, said the University is exploring ways to improve its support services for Native American students. 

“How do we create that home away from home, give them safe places where they can create community, help them navigate a very large bureaucratic institution, so that small things don't become a big hurdle for these learners.”

Shannon Geshik with the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council hopes the University will eventually increase income eligibility for incoming students, but for now, she called the new tuition program a huge win for tribal communities. 

“I think it'll be super impactful,” said “This will increase access to higher education for our Native American students.”