When it comes to preparing for higher education, oftentimes people in the Native American and Native Alaskan communities face obstacles that cause them to fall behind. According to the National Education Association, there is a dire need for quality teachers in many of the schools that Native American and Native Alaskan students primarily attend, especially in the rural areas, which leaves these students with an achievement gap that can prevent them from going to college. In fact, the organization reports that although 71 percent of students in these communities graduate from high school, only 11 percent go on to earn a bachelor's degree. In addition, according to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute, the rate of students earning an associate's degree is only slightly higher, at 17 percent — so a lot of work needs to be done to help these students increase their opportunities through higher education.
One of the ways to increase degree attainment rates is to alleviate concerns students have about paying for their education. Continue reading for information on scholarships and grants available to Native American and Native Alaskan college students. In addition, we share details on programs designed to help these students succeed in college, as well as resources they can use.
Unique Challenges for Native American and Native Alaskan Students
Financial Challenges and Student Debt
Many Native American and Native Alaskan students have financial challenges that can make it difficult to attend college. Since many of these students come from poor families and paying for education is such a huge barrier, college may feel like a goal that is well beyond their reach. In addition, many of the college-aged people in these communities have children — affording an education in addition to childcare and other living expenses can seem impossible to those who don't have financial support.
This concern plagues students from around the country. However, there is hope, as there has been a huge increase in people from poor families going to college. According to the Pew Research Center, in 1996, 12 percent of undergraduate students who were enrolled in college came from poverty, while that number increased to 20 percent in 2016. And financial aid is one of the ways they're managing it.
Cultural Difference and Insensitivity
In addition to financial challenges, Native American and Native Alaskan students often face insensitivity on a regular basis, which can make attending college an unpleasant experience that fosters failure. From Thanksgiving and Columbus Day celebrations that completely ignore the genocide their ancestors suffered, to sporting events with teams that bear insulting names, to overall enduring racist stereotypes and depictions in the media, these students face regular exposure to cultural insensitivity that can make them feel isolated and misunderstood.
Proof of Heritage for Sources of Financial Aid
When applying for financial aid, students are required to meet certain qualifications, including a minimum grade point average and participation in the community. In the case of Native American and Native Alaskan students, one of the expectations schools may have in order to provide financial aid is proof of heritage. For students who aren't aware of how this works, such a requirement may feel like another complex hurdle to keep them out of school. However, the steps can actually be quite simple.
To meet this standard, students should supply an original tribal membership document, which can be obtained through their tribe by providing proof of lineal descendancy or undergoing a blood test. In addition, students who are not enrolled in a tribe but have parents who are may be asked to provide their original birth certificate in order to receive financial aid.
Online Education for Native American and Native Alaskan Students
Online education is a convenient way for many students to earn their degrees. For Native American and Native Alaskan students, this option can also reduce some of the barriers they face in obtaining a higher education.
Financially, online degree programs can help students save money. Tuition rates can be lower in online courses, since students do not need to pay for on-campus facilities they won't be using. Other costs of living may also be lowered by online learning; for example, if a student doesn't need to drive to campus every day, they should be able to spend less money on gas and car repairs. This can be especially helpful for students in rural areas, who might have to commute hours every day to reach a college campus for an on-campus program.
In addition, online education can help to reduce exposure to the discrimination and cultural insensitivity students might otherwise endure. An online program offers a little bit of distance that allows students to more easily pick and choose their interactions with their peers, and to avoid campus traditions that may be offensive. By studying online, students can stay in their own communities where they feel most comfortable as they further their education.
Programs and Initiatives for Native American and Native Alaskan Students
In response to the hardships Native American and Native Alaskan students face, some schools and organizations have created programs and initiatives designed to help them find college success. The following are examples of some of these programs and the services they offer.
- Native Pathways to College Program: Hosted by the American Indian College Fund, this program is designed to help increase college enrollments of students from the Native American community by providing coaches to high school students to help them work toward gaining admission to college. In addition, once these students are in college, the organization has services to help them adjust to college life and the academic rigors they will experience.
- Native American Initiative: Students at California State University, Fresno can receive help from the school's Native American Initiative. In order to assist these students, the school provides mentoring services, community events, and academic monitoring and advisement so that any potential problems are addressed early.
- College Horizons: College Horizons offers a pre-college summer program for Native American and Alaska Native tenth and eleventh graders in order to familiarize them with the college admissions process, as well as how to succeed when they do land a spot at a college or university. During this three-week program, students participate in challenging and supportive seminars to learn about the college experience.
- American Indian Science and Engineering Society: Native American and Alaska Native students on the pre-college and college level who are interested in STEM fields can receive support from the American Indian Science and Engineering Society. Those who join the pre-college program can participate in workshops and internships that help them prepare for a STEM degree program, while college-level students can network with STEM workers in the Native community through conferences and internships.
One way for Native American and Alaska Native students to feel more comfortable in the college environment is by attending a tribal college. For about 50 years, Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) have given students the opportunity to obtain their higher education with others who understand their communities, while staying close to reservations in the Midwest and Southwest where they may have spent their entire lives.
There are currently 32 accredited TCUs in the United States. As of 2019, they offer 358 degree programs on the associate's, bachelor's, and master's level in total, as well as certificate and diploma programs.
Benefits of a Tribal College
There are many benefits for students who choose to attend a tribal college:
- Finances are often a barrier to getting a higher education, and tribal colleges can be a great solution to this problem. Most tribal colleges charge significantly lower tuition than other institutions.
- The environment at a tribal college may be more comfortable to Native American or Alaskan students than at other schools. Their college peers are more likely to have similar backgrounds, customs and values, which can help students to create a support network and form networking connections for the future.
- Having faculty that understands your needs and experiences can be just as important, if not more important, than having understanding peers. Tribal colleges give students access to professors, scholars and experts of Alaska Native or Native American descent. Role models like these can offer support that might be lacking at other colleges and universities, giving students the boost they need to achieve their goals.
Scholarships and Grants for Native American and Native Alaskan Students
- Full Circle Scholarship: Provided by the American Indian College Fund, the Full Circle Scholarship offers funds for Alaska Native and Native American students who attend TCU and non-TCU schools. In order to apply, students must submit proof of their tribal affiliation, college transcripts and a photograph.
- American Indian Graduate Center: The American Indian Graduate Center has scholarships for undergraduate and graduate Native American and Alaska Native students who demonstrate academic achievement, need, and involvement in the community.
- Association on American Indian Affairs: The association on American Indian Affairs hosts scholarships for full-time college students. To qualify, students must be enrolled in a tribe, have at least a 2.5 grade point average and submit an essay describing their involvement in their tribal community.
- AIS Scholarship: The AIS Scholarship is offered by American Indian Services for students who attend four-year colleges and universities, as well as those enrolled in junior colleges and technical schools. Applicants should be at least a one-quarter enrollment member of a Federally Recognized Native American Tribe and have at least a 2.25 GPA.
- The Bureau of Indian Education Higher Education Grant Program: This grant is for college students who are at least one-quarter American Indian and can demonstrate financial need.
Organizations and Other Resources
Native Americans and Native Alaskans who want to attend college can find resources to give them additional support as they navigate their way through the higher education experience. This section describes some of those resources.
Resources for Native American Students
- American Indian Science and Engineering Society: This organization helps students who are interested in pursuing STEM careers to adjust to college life and find success in their studies. In addition, students may have the opportunity to connect with Native Americans who work in STEM fields.
- American Indian Higher Education Consortium: AIHEC helps to strengthen communities by nurturing students and helping them find success in college. Through AIHEC, students can access resources such as career counseling, mentoring and tutoring, childcare, lending of laptops (very helpful if taking an online course) and more.
Resources for Native Alaskan Students
- Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN): The AFN connects a plethora of regional tribal organizations across Alaska, helping Alaska students to find resources, conventions, networking opportunities and reports on federal initiatives and programs that may be helpful.
- An Advocate for Native Alaskan Students: This article in Diverse Magazine outlines how the chancellor of the University of Alaska Southeast is helping Native Alaskans succeed, as well as increasing awareness about the unique challenges these students face.
Finding Resources on Google and Other Search Engines
Native American grants, scholarships for Native American descendants and many other educational resources are waiting to be found all across the nation. However, students have to use the right search terms to seek them out. The following are examples of some of the search terms people can use in order to find these resources:
- Scholarships for Native American college students
- Scholarships for Native Alaskan college students
- Grants for Native American college students
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- Financial aid for Native Alaskan college students
- Financial aid for Native American college students
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