Minnesota may make college tuition-free for American Indian undergrads

Protestor holds sign reading Fund Native Studies
Students protested outside the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities on March 17 in response to news that only 18 students received a tuition waiver under its Native American Promise Tuition Program in fall 2022.
Feven Gerezgiher | MPR News

Updated: 7:40 p.m.

American Indian students in Minnesota may soon be able to attend a public college or university for free. 

With the passage of their higher education omnibus bills, the Minnesota House and Senate recently approved $24 million to establish the American Indian Scholars Program, providing for a full tuition and fee waiver for American Indian students to pursue an undergraduate education at Minnesota’s public two- and four-year colleges and universities. 

Though a conference committee now must reconcile the different House and Senate bills, the American Indian Scholars Program is likely to make it through the changes. Gov. Tim Walz, who included a version of the program in his initial budget to pitch to legislators, is expected to sign the bill into law. 

“This has really been a vision and a desire of elected tribal leaders and tribal governments as a whole, and American Indian students and community members for multiple decades,” said Dennis Olson, commissioner of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education and an enrolled member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

“We're really excited to finally be able to act on long-standing tribal consultation and collaboration with tribal nations to be able to bring it forth this year.” 

The idea came from the Tribal Nations Education Committee, a group made up of representatives of Native communities including from every federally recognized tribal nation in Minnesota. They consult Minnesota state agencies on issues related to the education of American Indian communities. 

For years, the committee has submitted a position paper to the Minnesota Legislature detailing specific policy and budget changes, including a tuition and fee waiver program, that would increase access and improve educational outcomes for American Indian students.  

“Education for American Indians is a treaty right,” starts each position paper dating to 2016. 

“For what we gave up, which is our land and all of the land cessions, there were guarantees as a federal obligation to education of Indian people,” said committee member Laurie Harper, a citizen of and the director of education for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. She credited traction on the proposal in part to the number of Native women holding state office. 

“Understanding our history as American Indians and Native Americans here in what is now the state of Minnesota, it made sense for us if we were going to be addressing accessibility to education and inequality in those educational settings … we also needed to be able to address our lack of access and representation in those higher educational institutions,” Harper said. 

Minnesota isn’t the first state to make tuition free for American Indians. In Michigan and Montana, tuition waivers to public colleges for Native students have been available since the 1970s. 

A growing number of individual universities have also begun offering free or discounted tuition for Native students, including University of Arizona and Oregon State University, NPR reported last year.

Last fall, Augsburg University began fully funding tuition for eligible American Indian students. The University of Minnesota also piloted a tuition support program last fall on four of its campuses that one student called “insanely inadequate” at a protest in March. A university spokesperson said the program is in its first year and “does not represent completed work.”

Two people push a cart away from a brick building.
There are currently 1,895 students who identify as American Indian or Alaska Native in Minnesota public colleges and universities, according to the Minnesota Office of Education. They were just 2.2 percent of all students enrolled across University of Minnesota campuses in fall 2022.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2020

Program expected to improve educational attainment for Natives 

Starting in July 2023, the University of Minnesota will receive $4.032 million per year and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities will receive $4.468 million per year to provide tuition and fee waivers and support programs to American Indian students. 

Eligibility extends to Minnesota residents who are enrolled members or citizens of a federally recognized American Indian Tribe or Canadian First Nation, and anyone who is an enrolled member or citizen of a Minnesota tribal nation. There is no age limit, but candidates cannot already have a bachelor’s degree. 

State officials expect a tuition waiver will improve educational attainment rates of American Indian and Alaska Native students, who enroll in post-high school programs at significantly lower rates than other racial or ethnic groups in Minnesota, according to a 2022 report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. 

Most Native students already qualify for full-ride scholarships based on income, according to Olson, so they typically get the maximum awards for state and federal grants. Nationwide, 51 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native students who completed the FAFSA had an expected family contribution of $0, reported Amanda R. Tachine, assistant professor of higher education in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University in 2020. 

As a “first-dollar” program, the American Indian Scholars Program would just cover tuition and fees. Students could still receive other grants or scholarships to cover others costs of attending college like rent, childcare, transportation, food and books. 

Olson said free college is just one part of increasing access. 

“Tuition assistance and tuition waivers absolutely help, but, you know, there absolutely needs to be strong commitments from university leadership in terms of building further relationships with tribal communities and developing programs focused on supporting specifically Native students.”

Olson said resources like American Indian cultural housing and learning centers are critical, often becoming “the home away from home” for American Indian students. 

Morris student praises ‘an institutional guarantee’ 

A similar tuition waiver program at the University of Minnesota-Morris was one of the top reasons why Dylan Young, an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, chose to attend the school. 

“Morris wasn’t the only college program to offer me generous aid, but it was certainly the most stable because it was an institutional guarantee,” Young said. “I never had to question whether I was going to have a solution in the next year or not.” 

Young, 22, is the former president of the Morris Campus Student Association and a member of Circle of Nations Indigenous Association on the UMN-Morris campus.

Its vibrant Native student life and Native support system were the foremost attractions for Young, with Morris having the highest concentration of American Indian students of the five University of Minnesota campuses. 

Young man smiles into a sunset
Dylan Young, enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, is a senior at the University of Minnesota-Morris studying political science and English with a minor in Native Studies. While not the first in his family to attend college, he said he will be the first to graduate.
Courtesy of Dylan Young

UMN-Morris has provided free tuition for American Indian students since its inception because of its property’s history as a former Indian boarding school. For about a century, the U.S. government separated American Indian children from their families and placed them in boarding schools with the expressed aim of cultural genocide, according to The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. Rooted in treaty law, federal and state statute has required UMN-Morris to allow American Indian students to attend “free of charge for tuition.” 

As a result, the Morris tuition waiver is accessible to a broader swath of people than the American Indian Scholars Program, extending opportunity to enrolled members or direct descendants of a tribally verified member of any federally recognized American Indian tribe, Alaskan Native Village, or Canadian First Nation, regardless of Minnesota residency. 

Young said that should be the standard.  

“You look at how many Native students are enrolled at Morris and how many Native students are enrolled at UMN right now. The way that I see it, even if it was for every federally recognized tribe in the nation, I don't think that's going to be much more funding. I think the state could fund that. So why not open up to more students?” he said. 

There are currently 1,895 students who identify as American Indian or Alaska Native in Minnesota public colleges and universities, according to the Minnesota Office of Education. They were just 2.2 percent of all students enrolled across University of Minnesota campuses in fall 2022. 

Other students and community members have also criticized an eligibility limited to Minnesota residency or enrollment in Minnesota’s tribal nations. 

“We have Dakota tribal people that were exiled from the state of Minnesota and it's still on the state law books,” said Harper. “Their descendants who are living today don't qualify, but they have those ties here in the state of Minnesota. Those familial ties, those ties to the land here.” 

Former Indian boarding school dormitory at Univ. of Minnesota Morris
UMN-Morris has provided free tuition for American Indian students since its inception because of its property’s history as a former Indian boarding school.
Tom Weber | MPR News 2018

State also invests in tribal colleges 

The state is making other significant investments in American Indian higher education learning this year. 

The higher education omnibus bills include $1 million grants each to three tribal colleges — Leech Lake Tribal College, White Earth Tribal and Community College and Red Lake Nation Tribal College — for needed general operations and maintenance expenses. 

“This is something totally new,” said higher education omnibus bill chief author Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, speaking on Minnesota Now from MPR News in April.

Native students who attend a four-year institution after attending a Tribal College or University are much more likely to receive their bachelor’s degree than their Native peers who enrolled in a four-year university immediately after high school, according to a 2018 brief by the Center for Minority Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania. 

“The chronic underfunding of Tribal Colleges and Universities may jeopardize the educational attainment of Indigenous students,” Helen Zaikina-Montgomery, president of Leech Lake Tribal College, said in a presentation at a Senate Higher Education Committee hearing in February. 

About 80 percent of tribal college students are the first in their families to go to college, said Dan King, president of Red Lake Nation College and Hereditary Chief of Red Lake Nation, while testifying on behalf of the three tribal colleges at the February hearing.  

King reported the schools serve a majority low-income and Native student population with accredited two-year programs “infused with Ojibwe values,” providing a unique support system for Native student success with mentorship and small classes led by majority Native faculty and staff.

They encourage students to continue to further studies. A partnership with Minnesota State Colleges and Universities allows for an easy transfer process to a wider range of four-year programs, for example. 

Tribal colleges face similar issues as many other higher ed institutions - staff shortages, increased need for student mental health resources, etc. – but they have far fewer funding opportunities than other colleges, according to King.

He said the three tribal colleges do not receive direct state operational money, being primarily funded through federal grants and their tribal governments. Tuition only funds 3 to 5 percent of their budgets, he reported. 

The funding comes amid a larger debate in the Minnesota Legislature around how to best address college affordability, declining college enrollment across the state, and dire workforce shortages. 

“We need these trained individuals. I don't care if they come from a tribal college or any other college, but on the tribal side, we have way underfunded and neglected them,” Pelowski said. “This is our way of saying, ‘we're going to start putting resources back in.’” 

Tribal College
Leech Lake Tribal College.
Tom Robertson | MPR