American Indian college students heading back to school this fall face tough challenges. Some are common to all college students and some are unique to Native students. Many American Indian students begin their post-secondary education at a tribal or a community college, so this discussion focuses primarily on those institutions.
Finding the money to pay for college is at the top of almost everyone’s list. Financing can be especially challenging for American Indian students who have grown up and lived in poverty, says Carrie Billy, Navajo, president and CEO of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.
“The average income for a tribal college student is $15,262/year. The average tuition at a tribal college is less than $3,000 a year, but the average cost of attending the college, including housing, transportation, food and other expenses is $13,800.” Eighty percent of tribal college students get federal financial aid, mostly in the form of Pell grants, but, says Billy, the maximum Pell grant this year is only $5,645.
“The federal government should make a commitment to the lowest-income families in this county to increase the maximum Pell grant. This would be a tremendous help to getting more American Indians through college. When our students are fully funded for their education, they will complete a two-year degree in two years and a four-year degree in four years.”
Just a few tribal colleges participate in the federal student loan program, says Billy, “because loan repayment and the default rate policies of the federal government are so harsh.” Some get scholarship funding through their tribes or through the Bureau of Indian Education, but many students still come up short.
Students at community colleges are generally eligible for federal student loans, but as Billy points out, without a national income-based repayment plan, paying those loans will be extremely difficult for people who live in low-income communities with low-paying jobs.
Students testing water quality at Oglala Lakota College.
Poor Communication Between Tribes and Colleges
Alberto Olivas, Mexica (Aztec)/Huichol, director of the Center for Civic Participation at Maricopa Community Colleges, explains that each tribe has a different policy for funding scholarships and each college or university has its own payment schedule. There is often a breakdown in communication between tribes and financial aid offices, which can result in delayed financial aid checks. “Students need to get their money on time to buy books, secure housing and pay their tuition so they won’t be dropped from courses for non-payment,” he says.
Lack of Financial Literacy
Many students are not prepared to manage their grant and scholarship money successfully. “Students get a big financial aid check which is supposed to last for the semester, but they often spend it down too fast and end up with no money available for rent or food at the end of the semester,” says Olivas.
There is also the cultural expectation of sharing. “If you have a lot of money in your bank account, it’s hard to say no if someone in your family or a friend needs help. And students don’t have the mentors and guides they have in their home communities to go to for advice on such matters,” Olivas says.
Native American studies students in the garden at College of the Muscogee Nation.
Too Few Hours in the Day
Many American Indian college students are adults, with jobs to go to and families to care for in addition to their coursework. Many commute long distances, sometimes as much as 100 miles each way. Students say time management and prioritizing are among their greatest challenges. Most tribal colleges have day care centers to help parents make time to attend class and study.