United Tribes Technical College has discovered that by offering free tuition it can increase enrollment by more than 25 percent and not put the school at financial risk—in fact, they may come out ahead.
Last fall, United Tribes Technical College started a program that waives tuition for Native American students with financial need. Enrollment went up by 22 percent to 483 students, with another 6 percent increase in spring 2017. And students who take advantage of the tuition waiver program tend to do better academically than other students.
For Erica Weston, Oglala Lakota, the program meant the difference between finishing her Bachelor of Science in business administration and having to go home to the Pine Ridge Reservation with no degree at all. For her last three semesters, Weston said, “I had to pay for everything out of my own pocket; I ran out of Pell. Then I signed up for the tuition waiver for the last two semesters and I was able to get it. It helped a lot because I ended up also having to work full time to cover the costs for school.”
UTTC President Leander R. McDonald, Spirit Lake Tribe, explains how the numbers worked. “We anticipated about $300,000 in lost tuition for the college and it ended up being a little over a half a million dollars.” On the other hand, overall enrollment went up and included students who were paying tuition, so tuition revenues increased, as did revenues from fees, student housing and food services. “With formula funding, the more students you have the more money you get, and we’re anticipating an increase from that. So really it ends up being pretty near break even,” he said.
For students, the numbers are equally good, said McDonald. “If the total cost for college were $10,000 a semester, and they get a Pell grant, that’s around $2,750. Tribes might contribute around $3,500, so right there they’ve got $6,000. Tuition averages about $1,800, so that’s in there. The American Indian College Fund might provide anywhere from $500 to $2,000.”
Other students share Weston’s enthusiasm for the tuition waiver program. Said one student on an end-of-year survey conducted by the school, “The tuition waiver helped me financially and was also a great stress reliever knowing some of my expenses were waived. I also think it was a big help schooling-wise and maintained motivation in my work ethic with the help behind me.”
And another, “With the Native American Tuition Waiver Program I was able to stay in school and continue without having to go into more debt with student loans.” United Tribes Technical College withdrew from the federal student loan program in 2016 because repaying the loans is so burdensome for many American Indian families.
McDonald said the college’s experience is confirmed by the literature: students who apply for tuition waivers are organized and able to meet the earlier application deadline. That degree of preparedness for college coincides with the ability to do well once they’re admitted. Further, students who have their financing in place are free to concentrate on their studies once they get to school, he said
Weston graduated May 12 and she and her partner are packing up their two young sons to go back to South Dakota, where she hopes to start a non-profit to teach youth how to access the opportunities in higher education. “I didn’t even know that there was a lot of help out there until way later, then I was able to use some of the services. For example, I found that the American Indian College Fund was a really big help, but I know that at the high school level you don’t really hear about that program. I want to teach the youth how to write scholarship essays, resumes and cover letters,” and other skills they will need to get into college. Weston, whose mother also attended United Tribes Technical College, would eventually like to get her master’s in IT.
The tuition waiver program has been so successful that the UTTC Board of Directors has renewed it for the 2017-2018 school year and for summer 2018. McDonald urges students to begin working on their applications now. The deadline for fall semester 2017 is June 29.
The waiver is available to new and current United Tribes Technical College students, who are required to complete an admissions application and the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The waiver is based on unmet financial need. It applies only to tuition and not to other college costs such as fees, books, housing, and meals. For a checklist of application requirements and a step-by-step application form go to the ‘GET STARTED’ tab of the UTTC website.
United Tribes Technical College will continue to accept admissions applications until the beginning of fall classes, but tuition waiver applications must be in by the June 29 deadline. McDonald says that UTTC’s nursing program and heavy equipment and welding certificates are particularly popular, the latter because there are a lot of jobs available in North Dakota in the oil industry. Tuition waivers are available for students in short-term certificate programs as well as for students seeking associate’s and bachelor’s degrees.
If the preliminary numbers are borne out for a second year, McDonald hopes the board will make the tuition waiver program permanent so students will be able to use it for their entire college career.
Other schools have tuition waiver programs for Native American students, McDonald said. The North Dakota university system has a culture diversity tuition waiver, which is available to undergraduate and graduate students. Some other states that offer tuition reduction for American Indian and Alaska Native students include Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, North Carolina, Washington and Wyoming. (This list is not exhaustive.)
The states of Oregon and Tennessee offer free community college tuition to everyone and New York and San Francisco are expected to implement similar programs soon. In New York state, the free tuition extends to four-year schools. Arkansas, South Dakota and Minnesota waive tuition for students in high-demand fields.