What’s stopping more Native Americans from graduating college? The cost, a landmark study finds

This story was originally published by The 19th.

As a teenager, Greta Gustafson was sure that she wanted to be a veterinarian. But when the time came to choose a college, she didn’t have the financial means to simply apply to the higher education institutions with the best veterinary degree programs. She could only afford to apply to a few universities, ultimately enrolling in Montana State University, which stood out for its relatively inexpensive tuition, said Gustafson, who grew up on the Blackfeet Reservation in Browning, Montana, and is enrolled in the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation. 

“One of the reasons I stayed in state was strictly due to financial constraints,” Gustafson said. “And if that hadn’t been a factor, I do think I would have probably gone elsewhere just for professional growth and life experience. I’m happy with where I did go to school. It turned out to be very beneficial, but [finances] were a limiting factor in my application process.”

A national study on college affordability for Indigenous students found that financial barriers often dictate where Native Americans apply for college and whether they graduate, once they enroll. Released as the 2022-23 school year began, the landmark study of nearly 2,800 Indigenous current and former college students found that half of participants chose their higher education institution based on the cost of attendance. Women are overrepresented among the Indigenous student population, making up 63% of current college students and 58% of former students surveyed for the report by the National Native Scholarship Providers (NNSP) — which consists of the Cobell Scholarship Program, American Indian College Fund, American Indian Science and Engineering Society and the Native Forward Scholars Fund.

“We believe it’s the largest data set of its kind and one of the first of its kind,” said Angelique Albert, CEO of Native Forward Scholars Fund. “A lot of times, we as Native people are the asterisk. There’s no data. There’s limited data. We’re statistically insignificant and all that, so it’s nice to have a baseline of data for people to use.”

The study found that 72% of students reported running out of money at least once in the last six months, while more than a quarter experienced food insecurity and 16% experienced homelessness as they pursued a higher education. More than 30% of former Native students named the first year of college as the most difficult financially. A plurality of current and former students come from households with annual incomes of under $20,000 and struggled to manage unanticipated expenses related to health care, transportation, housing, technology and books during college. 

“The main obstacle to college completion for our Native students is affordability,” Albert said. “And that is something that we as scholarship providers know and see every day. We talk to students who call in and are requesting emergency funding. I’ve also spoken to students who have had to make a decision between having a house and going to school, and they made this decision to live out of their car so that they could go to school. That shows dedication to their education, but at the same time, their basic needs are not being met.”

Funding for the college affordability study was made possible by a 30-month grant that the American Indian College Fund received from the Lumina Foundation, which works to make higher education access more equitable. Terri Taylor, Lumina’s strategy director for innovation and discovery, said that it’s important to uncover the specific challenges of Indigenous students because they differ from other groups, including other students of color.

“It’s not just affordability in a vacuum,” Taylor said. “It’s understanding the unique experiences that these students bring. A lot of them go to college so they can bring back new knowledge, experiences, connections and resources to their tribal communities. If affordability barriers are too high, it blocks Native students’ ability to bring all that back to their communities.”

The fact that Native American women have higher representation in college than Native men is particularly significant. When women obtain credentials, Taylor said, they typically empower their whole family. “It immediately increases the likelihood of their own children going to college and having a financially stable future,” she noted. “Oftentimes, women are taking care of parents or other family members. They are in the workforce at higher levels now, and so part of this is Native women accessing college partly to serve their communities and their families.”

Native Forward has supported more than 20,000 scholars throughout its 53-year history, and between 60% and 70% of its funding goes to women, Albert said. The organization has made a point to provide wraparound services during the COVID-19 pandemic, launching an emergency fund to help students pay for food, housing, gas, transportation and other living expenses to keep them in school. According to the college affordability study, just 36.2% of Indigenous students entering four-year colleges in 2014 completed their degree program in six years compared to 60.1% of all students.

Managing her finances as an undergrad was difficult for Gustafson, now 24 and a doctoral student in Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. She went from relying on her parents to provide her living expenses to developing a personal budget that could not exceed her student loan and scholarship aid. “Creating a budget was probably one of the hardest things that I struggled with my first year on top of trying to keep up with schoolwork, pass my classes and just surviving the transition to being a college student,” she said. Gustafson would have appreciated a course on money management prior to the start of her college career, an intervention the NNSP study also recommends.

Native students without access to emergency funding frequently go into debt trying to cover their expenses, the report found. Thirty-four percent of former students relied on subsidized loans to make ends meet during college, 30% took out unsubsidized loans, 25% used credit cards and 11% depended on private loans. More than half of students took out loans of $5,000 or less, while 22% borrowed between $10,000 and $30,000. 

Some states and public university systems offer free tuition to Indigenous students, but there are restrictions on which Native Americans qualify for the funding. They may need to be enrolled in a federally recognized tribe or meet blood quantum requirements to be eligible. While their tuition may be covered, these students are still responsible for paying for other college expenses. And in some places, free tuition programs haven’t rolled out as planned.  

“In Michigan, there was a law that required the state to pay for scholarships for Native students who were impacted by Michigan getting land from Native peoples,” Taylor said. “It turns out that they then didn’t appropriate enough funds for the scholarships. I think it’s a myth that a lot of Native students go to college for free.”

Increasing the amount of Pell Grants, the need-based financial aid the federal government awards to students, and offering larger scholarships and other funding could give Native Americans more options during the college application process. Albert said that she routinely encounters Indigenous youth who choose not to attend elite colleges and universities because of their cost. Last year, she served a student who won admission to the University of California, Berkeley, and was ready to head off to the school. But when the student found out the cost of attendance, she no longer wanted to go. Her family had filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) incorrectly, depriving her of much-needed financial help. Ultimately, Albert and her team helped the family modify her FAFSA to get more financial assistance. 

Although both of Gustafson’s parents went to college — her father is a veterinarian — they could not guide her through the FAFSA process because they paid for their higher education through other means, she said. Other than an hour-long informational session about the FAFSA at her high school, she had no help filling out the application.

“There was really nothing that helped me determine how I was going to pay for school, how to apply for student loans, or really what my options were,” she said. “So that was definitely a disservice. I was in a rural, very small high school, and we didn’t have a lot of resources or high school advisors or counselors to help us try to apply for schools or financial aid services. And it was kind of just a shotgun approach of teaching myself how to apply for colleges and also how to apply for financial aid and for scholarships.”

Fifty-eight percent of the study participants said they received help filling out the FAFSA, with 44% of current students and 51% of former students agreeing or strongly agreeing that they did not fully understand the costs of attending college. Albert said that the problem is so prevalent that many Indigenous students who qualify for four-year colleges opt to go to junior college because it’s cheaper.

“You should be able to pick the institution that you want that most aligns with your career goals,” she said. “We have a long way to go for our students and helping them get to where they need to be.”

To ensure that more Native Americans receive undergraduate degrees, high schools and colleges should prioritize giving Indigenous students and families the tools needed to navigate the financial aid process, the study recommends. In addition, higher education institutions need staff who understand Indigenous student populations and their economic needs, including that 67% of such students are expected to contribute to family bills while in college. Native American students who have positive cultural experiences in college are more likely to graduate, the study found. 

“It’s not just integration of the culture; it is ensuring that you have culturally competent people providing that education,” Albert said. “So, do you have Native professors? Do you have Native curriculum? Do you have Native peer groups on campuses? Do you have Native American support services so that students have a resource space to go to in addition to those social aspects?”

When Gustafson attended Montana State, from which she graduated in 2020, she appreciated that it had what is now the American Indian Hall, which includes offices for the institution’s American Indian/Alaska Native Student Success Services and Department of Native American Studies.

“They were really great about hosting cultural events,” she said. “I like to cook, so I attended a lot of cultural Indigenous cooking classes and also a few beading events, and each year they put on a Native American powwow as well. So I was fairly involved with that at Montana State, and I took a lot of Native American history courses, specifically Montana Native American history. That was really beneficial. I think there was a great support system there.”

At Washington State University, Gustafson has had fewer opportunities to connect with Native American students or to engage in Indigenous-related cultural events, she said. “That’s been a little bit difficult to adjust to, just being away from home and away from my family and culture and then going to a place that doesn’t have as much support in those aspects.”

Still, she’s on track to graduate from the university’s veterinary college in 2024. Gustafson would like to pursue an internship and residency program in equine surgery, a specialty that doesn’t pay as well as others in the veterinary field, she said. According to the college affordability study, 35% of participants agreed or strongly agreed that their perception of college debt influenced which major they chose. Gustafson, however, recognizes that she can fill a need in her tribal community with the line of veterinary work she’s pursuing.

“So many students accept very high-paying jobs or jobs in places that they may not have originally picked as their first choice just because that salary will allow them to pay their student loans back,” Gustafson said. “Scholarships have really come in handy to help reduce my student loan debt, and I think it’s something that is going to have to be addressed because if graduates only choose professions in urban areas or areas that pay very well, that leaves rural and underserved communities without people to work there.”


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