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Supporting Native American Students In Higher Education

What’s Being Done, And How Can Institutions Improve?

In 2019, 25% of Native Americans over the age of 25 had an associate degree or higher. When compared to 42% of all those over the age of 25, the gap is evident. Coupled with challenges that many Native higher education students face — including financial instability, the need for support in more ways than one is apparent. From the research done on the matter to the strides made in tuition assistance and how institutions of higher education can go the extra mile in creating a more inclusive academic environment, here’s what you should know.

The financial challenges at play

With regard to Native Americans and higher education data, one Forbes article notes that “Only 36.2% of Indigenous students entering four-year institutions of higher education in 2014 completed their degrees in six years, as compared to 60% of all other undergraduate students in  the U.S.” While this highlights the fact that the matter isn’t a new issue, understanding the challenges behind low enrolment or graduation can largely be found in financial matters, according to newer research.

When seeking to understand the challenges at play that contribute to the low graduation/enrolment rates among Native students, financial issues play a major role, highlights the National Study on College Affordability for Indigenous Students. In a ‘deep analysis’ regarding affordability, the study included research on variables such as food security, caretaking responsibilities, culture experience, and more were taken into account, notes Forbes. Findings brought to light the fact that 35% of study participants worked more than 20 hours a week while enrolled as full time students, while over half experienced food insecurity and 16% experienced homelessness while in college. Additional financial stressors were also uncovered, with “67% of student participants are expected to contribute to family bills while in college in order to ensure that their families could make ends meet.”

The value of tuition support

When it comes to seeking a solution to help Native students pursue an education and graduation, multiple higher education institutions have made major strides in offering tuition assistance, particularly this year. In June, the University of Arizona announced free tuition for Native students “who are enrolled with a federally recognized tribe in Arizona,” while Oregon State University will grant in-state tuition for each federally recognized Native student despite location this fall, notes one NPR article. A new initiative through the University of California system will also work to make tuition free for Native students as well, taking care of the stress of the financial cost for many. NPR goes on to point out that this isn’t new, as Tribal colleges have made historical efforts in making tuition cost effective, while the University of Maine “has had a tuition waiver since the 1930s.” Regarding the effectiveness of such programs in a post-pandemic world, the NPR article notes that “At Fort Lewis College, administrators are having an easier time recovering their enrolment drop felt in the pandemic,” further going on to note that “The school’s data show that Native students are now enrolling and persisting at pre-pandemic levels.”

Creating a supportive learning environment

While financial support is a major help for Native Americans, there is more than higher educational institutions can do in order to ensure their Native students thrive in the academic environment. An Inside Higher Ed article by James A. Bryant Jr. notes that in order to do this, making a full commitment to Native American students should be prioritized, stating that “A full commitment to Native students means they will experience their culture in our arts programs, that they will hear the voices of their community in our English departments, that the ancestral wisdom of their nation will have a seat at the table in our sustainable development programs and that the story of their people is more than an afterthought in our history departments.”

In addition to fully committing to Native American students, institutes of higher education can also work to support students individually simply by offering variety in their course catalog. For those with an introverted personality, virtual learning methods such as hybrid or fully online course options can enable those who thrive in quiet spaces that will allow them to thoughtfully engage in their academic work. For Native students, this can allow for more flexibility and convenience in the academic environment, especially for those who plan on maintaining a part-time job while undertaking academic endeavors.

Native American students have long faced unique challenges that involve financial instability among others. While tuition support offers great help to many regarding the financial aspect of higher education, institutions of higher education can further improve in making college a place for Native students to thrive by making flexible online options available as well as making a commitment to make campus more inclusive to Native American students.

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