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Randall Akee
Native Hawaiian

UCLA Associate Professor of Public Policy and American Indian Studies

Phenocia Bauerle
Crow Nation
UC Berkeley Director of Native American Student Development

Paul Ong
UCLA Professor of Urban Planning

Desi Small-Rodriguez
Northern Cheyenne and Chicana
UCLA Assistant Professor of Sociology

The University of California system is one of the largest and most prestigious post-secondary educational institutions in the country. Its beginnings 170 years ago were as fraught as they were humble. The Morrill Act enabled the creation of land-grant colleges, which were resourced by the sale of federal lands. These lands were, in many cases, stewarded by tribes, and they ended up in the hands of the federal government sometimes by treaty and often through seizure. Although a critical driving force behind California’s continued economic and technological successes, UC has not been sufficiently accessible to the very people whose dispossession was core to its founding.

In a monumental move, the State of California is looking to correct historical injustice and promote greater inclusiveness of Native Americans, a group that to this day encounters numerous systemic barriers to post-secondary education. The UC Office of the President, under President Michael V. Drake, has established the Native American Opportunity Plan that will take effect in the fall of 2022. The tuition scholarship will cover in-state tuition and fees for American Indians and Alaska Natives California residents who are enrolled members of any federally-recognized Native American or Alaska Native tribe. This tuition scholarship will apply for all University of California undergraduate and graduate programs and at all campuses. Not only will the plan begin to address some of the education barriers that marginalize American Indian and Alaska Native people, it is also an acknowledgement that UC has benefited enormously from the sale of lands that were stolen through various means from Indigenous peoples and, still today, sits on parcels that rightfully belong to tribal nations and communities. While the plan does not address non-federally recognized tribes, there has been outreach and discussion with external entities to encourage the creation of a foundation that will fund California resident members of non-federally recognized tribes.

The plan is sure to draw the ire of those who would cry “reverse racism,” but unlike explicitly race-based affirmative action programs – which are important and necessary in their own rights – this plan is rooted in the recognition of tribal sovereignty. The plan is premised upon the political class – not the race – of tribal members, a distinct political class established by the Supreme Court.

With this Plan, UC greatly expands on other universities’ efforts to right historical wrongs. For example, Georgetown University – in light of the revelation that in 1838 the institution sold 271 people it had enslaved to keep the university afloat – announced that it would create an admissions preference for the descendants of those enslaved people. Additionally, the Montana University System has one of the longest-standing tuition waiver policies for American Indian students in the country since its adoption in 2008. However, the Montana’s program only applies to students eligible for need based aid.

The UC Office of the President program is financially more ambitious, covering all in-state tuition and fees for any UC students who are California residents and enrolled members of any federally-recognized tribe in any of the 49 states. This is not a trivial amount, having an annual value of roughly $14,000 per student. This funding will provide financial support for approximately 20 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native undergraduate students who currently do not receive financial aid.

(Related: California universities, tribe make tuition free for many Indigenous students)

This ambitious UC Office of the President program may help to close the persistent educational attainment gap suffered by American Indians and Alaska Natives. Among those between the ages of 24-35, a critical period when career paths are defined for young adults, Indigenous people are far less likely to have a college education, thus relegated to the lower segments of the labor market. Among those in the prime college-going ages of 19-24, less than a third of American Indians and Alaska Natives are enrolled, compared with nearly half of non-Hispanic whites.

There is evidence that cost is a barrier to attending UC and other institutions that offer a bachelor’s degree. American Indian and Alaska Native undergraduates are concentrated in two-year community colleges, where costs are lower. About two-in-five American Indians and Alaska Natives with some post-secondary education have student debt payments of at least $350 or more per month. This is a larger proportion than for any other race or ethnic category. The UC Plan will remove these initial cost barriers as well as the ongoing burden of debt.

The UC system is leading the way in acknowledging its place and role in educating Indigenous people. It is our hope that this new UC Office of the President program will be a call to action to other public, land-grant institutions in the US. In the absence of similar programs in other locations, the UC system as a whole will gain a significant advantage in recruiting the best and brightest American Indian and Alaska Native students from around the country. Whether motivated by justice, competitive disadvantage, or both, other institutions that serve Indigenous peoples – such as the University of Hawai'i that sits on Hawaiian Kingdom lands – should see UC’s plan as a wake-up call.

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