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Native American College Student Support Guide Scholarships, Retention Strategies & Resources

Native American learners currently make up just one percent of all postsecondary students, and these small numbers are due to several factors stretching back hundreds of years. Colonization may be over, but this student population is still challenged by discrimination, cultural misappropriation, lack of access and a scarcity of support programs. In this guide, Native American and non-tribal students can learn about some of the trials facing this community of learners while also tapping into a range of resources meant to bolster Native American student numbers and support them while in school. Readers can also gain expert insight from Dr. Lee Bitsóí, Chief Diversity Officer at Stony Brook University and a proud member of the Navajo Nation.

Meet the Expert

LeManuel “Lee” Bitsóí EdM, EdD, Chief Diversity Officer, Stony Brook University

Written By

Retention Strategies & Help for Students

Strategy #1: Maintain Connections to Family and Tribal Community

Because many Native American students feel that attaining an education is most useful for serving the tribes and communities from which they originate, colleges and universities seeking to retain and support these students can do much to protect and maintain these relationships throughout the higher education experience. They can also be useful in attracting more Native American students to postsecondary learning. Examples of best practice partnerships between universities, Native American students, and their communities are given below.

Montana State University’s Caring for Our Own Program (CO-OP)

The CO-OP program originated on MSU’s campus in 1999 and exists to improve quality of life and care within tribes by ensuring Native American nurses receive the best training available. The goal of CO-OP is two-fold: to increase the number of Native Americans attending college (specifically nursing programs) and to graduate a larger number of trained nursing professionals and expand care to other Native Americans.

Northern Arizona University’s Tribal Partners

NSU maintains relationships with both tribal colleges/universities and tribal partners throughout the state to ensure Native American learners have familiar resources and support systems at their fingertips throughout the college experience. As of late 2017, the institution maintains relationships and partnerships with 22 different tribes and nations, working together to recruit and retain learners while also teaching fellow students and professors how to create a welcoming and culturally sensitive learning atmosphere.

According to the Indian College Fund, 91 percent of Native American scholarship recipients are classified as nontraditional students, meaning they have at least one child, work full-time, and/or are older than 24. Because higher education is seen as a community exercise within Native American culture, the concept of leaving behind children or family – or not prioritizing their needs – is not embraced. To improve the retention and recruitment of Native American students who are single parents or have families to consider, colleges must have support systems to make their time in school less challenging. Examples of university programs providing support include:

Fort Lewis College’s Native American Scholarships and Tuition Waiver

Colorado’s Fort Lewis College makes it possible for eligible Native American students to attend school for free, but they don’t stop there. Recognizing that the cost of schoolbooks, room and board, student fees, and additional education costs quickly add up for student-parents, the school provides a tuition waiver to help cover these additional costs. Many tribal agency scholarships are also advertised. The school currently has more than 1,200 Native American students from 150 tribes.

St. Cloud State University’s Minnesota Student Parent Support Initiative

The SPSI exists to ensure that student-parents on SCSU’s campus receive the support and resources needed to thrive. In addition to providing Lunch ‘n’ Learn student parent groups with speakers on relevant topics, the group also hosts educational workshops on parenting topics and social events such as family movie/bowling night. Aside from regular funding, the school offers a childcare grant and single parent scholarships. Campus resources include a childcare center, lactation spaces, and a nontraditional student organization.

Native American students often feel much anxiety about leaving their communities to attend college, and most of the anxiety revolves around entering a different culture and potential lapses in their previous educations. Some learners may have had limited access to advanced English and mathematics classes, while others may simply be anxious about the unknown. By providing peer mentoring programs, universities help new Native American students transition into college, introduce them to meaningful extracurricular activities that build friendships, and help them find resources or staff to provide any academic assistance they may need. Two such programs doing great work are:

University of Idaho’s Peer Advising and the College Experience (PACE) Program

The PACE program has been around for 22 years and continues to work diligently, building bridges for multicultural students to transition into college successfully. More than two dozen mentors currently work with first-year and transfer students, ensuring Native American learners are connected with their peers, professors, and their campus as a whole. They also promote cultural openness, leadership positions, and participation and campus-wide events.

Washington State University’s Peer Mentor Program

Operated by the Multicultural Student Services office, this innovative program pairs students of all cultural backgrounds with incoming Native American students to help them transition smoothly. Assignments are made once learners are admitted, thereby making it possible for their student-mentor to contact them before starting and to keep in touch during their first year of studies. Mentors are trained and help mentees in developing relationships, taking advantage of student clubs. Mentors show mentees around campus, and promote a safe, welcoming environment that lessens anxiety.

Elevating Native American Students’ Sense of Belonging in Higher Education

For far too long, Native American students’ experiences in education have been inconsistent with those of majority and other minority learners. The most pressing concerns for this learning population are a deficiency of tribal role models within higher education, a lack of cultural understanding by students and professors, and discrimination. Native Americans are continually underrepresented in postsecondary learning. Even when they do attend college, this learning community graduates at a far lower rate than their white counterparts: according to a study of learners who started college in 2005, 60 percent of white students graduated within four years, while only 39 percent of Native American learners completed their studies.

To elevate Native American students’ sense of belonging, Chief Diversity Officer of Stony Brook University, Dr. Lee Bitsóí offers solutions. “The academy can always do a better job in acknowledging contributions of all communities of color, but this is especially true for indigenous people,” he says. “The historicism of the Native American experience can be remedied by including them in all discussions about minority populations – not just African Americans and Latinos.” He also pointed out that the way Native Americans are discussed in educational statistics also needs work. “When Native Americans are included in statistics, there is usually an asterisk to denote that the number of Native Americans is statistically insignificant. However, statistics do exist, but oftentimes, researchers do not take the time to mine such data.”

Scholarships & Financial Aid for Native American Students

American Indian Services Scholarship
  • American Indian Services
  • Up to $2,000
  • February 1st, May 1st, August 1st, November 1st

Four scholarships per year are awarded to degree-seeking students who are at least one-quarter enrolled member of a Native American tribe recognized by the federal government. Applicants may be studying on a part- or full-time basis.

Graduate Scholarships
  • American Indian Education Fund
  • Up to $2,000
  • April 4th

This scholarship is made available to full- and part-time graduate students who are enrolled in a tribe or have at least one parent who is. Learners must have at least a 2.5 GPA and online courses are not accepted.

Scholarship for Undergraduates
  • Wells Fargo
  • Up to $5,000
  • May 1st

Wells Fargo makes available this scholarship to American Indian and Native Alaskan students who are enrolled full-time and have a GPA of 2.7 or higher.

Undergraduates Attending Tribal Colleges
  • American Indian College Fund
  • Varies
  • May 31st

This scholarship is open to U.S. citizens enrolled in a tribal, public, or private institution on a full-time basis. They must also be registered as a federal or state tribe member, or descendant of a grandparent or parent who is an enrolled tribal member.

Undergraduate Scholarship Service
  • American Indian Education Fund
  • $2,000
  • April 4th

Undergraduate students who can provide proof of tribal enrollment – either for themselves or a parent – are eligible for this scholarship, so long as they are studying full-time and have at least a 2.0 GPA.

A.T. Anderson Memorial Scholarship
  • American Indian Science and Engineering Society
  • Up to $2,000
  • March 31

Undergraduate and graduate students of Native American heritage pursuing degrees in math, medical sciences, technology, physical science, natural resources, engineering, or science can apply for this scholarship.

Chevron Corporation Scholarship
  • Chevron
  • $5,000
  • March 31

Available to American Indian, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, and First Nations students enrolled in either STEM or business studies. Learners must have a 3.0 GPA and be studying full-time.

Native American Natural Resource Research Scholarship
  • USDA Forest Service Southern Research Station/Intertribal Timber Council
  • Up to $4,000
  • January 31

This scholarship is dedicated to Native American students who want to conduct research about natural resource preservation on tribal lands. Students must provide a research proposal, letters of reference, resume, and evidence of enrollment.

Oracle Academy Scholarship
  • Oracle/AISES
  • Up to $10,000
  • March 31

Available to Native American students pursuing degrees in computer engineering or computer science. Applicants must be either a graduate student or in their junior/senior year of undergraduate studies and have a 3.5 GPA.

Truman D. Picard Scholarship
  • Intertribal Timber Council
  • Up to $2,500
  • February 7th

Native American students pursuing an undergraduate or graduate degree in natural resources are eligible for this scholarship. Required materials include a resume, letters of reference, transcripts, and evidence of enrollment.

America Indian Nurse Scholarship
  • The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America
  • $1,500
  • June and December

The NSCDA has provided this scholarship since 1928 to individuals of Native American heritage who want to work in the field of nursing – particularly those who want to serve their communities.

Health, Lifestyle and Health Care System Scholarship
  • ColoHealth
  • $500
  • June 30th

To be competitive for this award, students must be a member of a Native American tribe and submit an essay about the healthcare system.

Health Professions Scholarship
  • Indian Health Service
  • Tuition & Fees, plus monthly stipend
  • March 28th

The IHS Health Profession scholarship covers the balance of school costs, provided students are members of a federally-recognized tribe and commit to one year of service for each year they receive the scholarship.

Preparatory Scholarship
  • Indian Health Service
  • Tuition & Fees, plus month stipend
  • March 28th

This full scholarship is given to Native American students who are currently completing prerequisite coursework required for undergraduate studies related to health and/or medicine.

NativeVision Scholarship
  • Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
  • Varies
  • September 5th

This award is made to American Indian students who are enrolled in a recognized tribe, have a GPA of at least 3.0, and can demonstrate involvement in extracurricular activities.

Gates Millennium Scholars
  • The Gates Foundation
  • Average of $12,227 per student

This scholarship is awarded to minority students – including American Indian/Alaska Native learners – who have at least a 3.3 GPA. Awards are designed to cover any needs that aren’t met by other sources of funding.

NAJA Scholarship
  • Native American Journalists Association
  • Up to $2,000
  • August 31

High school seniors and college students who want to work in media are eligible for this scholarship, provided they are of Native American heritage and maintain a NAJA membership.

NCAID Scholarships
  • The National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development
  • Varies
  • September 5th

Awards are given to Native American students completing a business-related degree, either at the undergraduate or undergraduate level. They must be attending an accredited institution on a full-time basis.

Scholarship for Minority Accounting Students
  • American Institute of Certified Public Accountants
  • Up to $5,000
  • March 1st

Minority students – including members of a Native American tribe – are eligible for this scholarship, whether they are studying at the undergraduate or graduate level. They must also be planning to become a licensed CPA and have at least a 3.0 GPA.

Undergraduate Scholarships
  • The Lagrant Foundation
  • $2,500
  • February 28

Applicants to this scholarship must be Native American/Alaska Native, have at least a 3.0 GPA, and be studying on a full-time basis. They must also be enrolled in a major related to advertising, marketing, or public relations.

5 Tips for Scholarship Applications

Applying for scholarships is a nail-biting experience for any student seeking educational funding, but this can be especially true for Native American students if they feel they don’t have a good handle on the process. Check out some quick tips below to feel confident in your applications.

  • Demonstrate tribal enrollment

    If you haven’t already established your enrollment, now is the time to do it. Each tribe has different requirements for enrollment, but in general you will need to present birth certificates for yourself, your parents and possibly your grandparents, alongside any tribal documents. Once you’re successfully enrolled, you can present your tribal identification card or a letter from your tribe to satisfy scholarship requirements.

  • Be yourself

    You may think your story is the same as everyone else’s, but that’s simply not true. By taking time to share unique details of your life (such as tribal traditions, your hero/inspiration, that you’re a first-generation student, etc.), scholarship essay reading panels get a true sense of what distinctive strengths you bring.

  • Ask for help

    Dr. Dean Chavers, co-founder of the education and scholarship organization Catching the Dream, says that not asking for help is one of the biggest mistakes Native Americans make. “A student came to us to try to win scholarships…his first draft [essay] was a C+. By his fifth draft, he had an A level essay, which won him 70 scholarships.” You may not like your first attempt, but others can help you make it a great final product.

  • Keep volunteerism in mind

    Serving others less fortunate than yourself is a good thing to do regardless, but students should also keep in mind that some Native American scholarships want to see a demonstrable volunteer record of applicants helping their own. It’s best to get plugged into a community role early in high school.

  • Reach for the stars

    Understanding all the rules and requirements of receiving scholarships and attending college may seem overwhelming, but all that hard work pays off if you keep at it. Consider asking friends, family, and members of your tribe to support and hold you accountable in your goals.

Advice from an Expert

LeManuel “Lee” Bitsóí, EdM, EdD, is the Chief Diversity Offer for Stony Brook University. Dr. Bitsóí has more than 20 years of experience in academia, including prominent roles at San Juan College, Dartmouth College (where he led the institution’s Native American recruitment initiative and worked to achieve record enrollment of Native American students), and Harvard University, where he recruited underrepresented students and scholars. Prior to serving at Stony Book, Dr. Bitsóí was the Director of Student Diversity and Multicultural Affairs at Rush University Medical Center.

A proud member of the Navajo Nation, Dr. Bitsóí holds an undergraduate degree in child development and family relations from the University of New Mexico, an EdM in administration, planning and social policy from Harvard University, and an EdD in higher education management from the University of Pennsylvania. He is active nationally in the STEM diversity movement and recently represented the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics & Native Americans in Science as a key speaker at the Chicago March for Science.

How can colleges best elevate Native American students’ sense of belonging in higher education?

We must remember and acknowledge how education was established in North America. Education in our country, historically, was reserved for the privileged and elite, as evidenced by the first colonial colleges that were established by white European men for white European males. Only three colleges (Harvard College, the College of William and Mary and Dartmouth College) made a commitment to educate other people — Native Americans — but they failed miserably in their efforts. Subsequently, this institutionalized privilege has dictated and influenced the establishment and development of our K-12 system and social and health services. Because everyone else was excluded in those colonial colleges, including other colleges that were established shortly thereafter, historically black colleges and universities, women’s colleges, religious affiliated institutions and tribal colleges and universities were created. It is crucial that people are aware of these historical facts so that they understand the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion today as we broaden the participation of underrepresented and unmentioned people in higher education.

What advice do you have for Native American students who may not feel known and heard in college?

There are times in college where I found myself to be the only person of color or the lone Native American and it continues today. So, I usually haves to inform and educate others about Native American history, but it is worthwhile to do so. It can be frustrating to have to explain that not all tribal communities have casinos and that we pay taxes just like anyone else, and we do not necessarily receive anything for free. Most people are not aware that tribal nations have government-to-government relationships with the federal government that are based on treaties and in those treaties are provisions that allow for some educational and health care benefits, but they are limited.

We have survived a litany of atrocities committed through federal government legislation — forced removal from traditional lands, termination policies, government boarding schools, loss of language and culture — but we are still here. It even continues today with allowing the environmental rape of our land and lack of respect for tribal sovereignty in such developments like the Dakota Access and Keystone Pipelines, as well as the reduction of national monuments — Bears Ears, etc. Therefore, I encourage all Native American students to have a solid understanding of who they are and where they come from since this will provide information in any debates and/or discussions about tribal sovereignty. Perhaps most importantly, indigenous students need to take pride in their languages and cultures for this will sustain us for many generations to come.

What are some of the reasons Native American students may feel they don’t belong while in college?

It’s not so much that Native Americans don’t feel like we don’t belong, it’s more of acknowledging our presence and our understanding of the value of education. It’s also about understanding that we are a nation of nations as there are over 570 tribal nations in the U.S. We may have some common values and traditions, such as respecting Mother Earth and Father Sky, but we have distinct languages and cultures, so people should not assume that we are all the same.

For example, I currently live on Long Island and while I am Navajo and Native American, my language is not in the Algonquian language group for it is Athabaskan. Moreover, the culture, traditions and food of the Algonquian people on Long Island are interconnected with the ocean; whereas Navajo culture, traditions and food are based on high plateau and mountain terrains. Furthermore, the definition of success is relative. In mainstream society, a person is successful if they have a bachelor’s degree. However, in indigenous knowledge bases, a college degree does not hold the same value since we, as Native Americans, have traditional ecological knowledge that we pass on to our children. So, if one of our youth is tapped to become a practitioner of traditional ethnomedicine, we encourage and support such an aspiration. 

In addition, for some Native American communities, there is the economic reality of supporting a family and obtaining a postsecondary credential from a tribal college/university or a community college serves that need.

What can schools do to help?

Tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) do an excellent job in recruiting and graduating Native American students and they accomplish this through programming that is respectful of all students. In addition, there is cultural relevance in the curriculum, so students are aware that their language and culture are welcomed and respected and this leads to more thoughtful engagement and learning. Other minority serving institutions (MSI) operate and deliver education in similar ways so mainstream institutions can learn from all TCUs and MSIs to recruit, retain and graduate minority students. 

Furthermore, every institution that has been built exists on the traditional homeland of a tribal nation. Accordingly, each institution should acknowledge this in some way, especially if they partnered with local tribal nations or communities in some capacity to recognize this fact. Way before the colonists arrived, all of Turtle Island was indigenous and all of us need to be mindful of this.

Tribal Colleges

Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) exist throughout America, in states ranging from Washington and Michigan to North Dakota and Arizona. The U.S. Department of Education notes that, as of late 2017, 37 fully accredited TCUs are located throughout the country and home to 181 associate degrees, 40 bachelor’s degrees, and five master’s programs.

TCUs tend to be located where there are high populations of Native American tribes and nations, thus they are concentrated mostly in the Midwest, Southwest, and Pacific Northwest. The existing tribal schools serve an average of 30,000 learners each academic year, on both a full- and part-time basis.

Because Tribal Colleges and Universities are funded via the Tribally Controlled College and University Assistance Act, all must admit both tribal and non-tribal students – provided they meet university standards. A 2016 report from the American Indian Higher Education Consortium found that approximately 15 percent of all enrolled students at tribal colleges are currently classified as non-tribal.

Potential degree seekers interested in learning more about what tribal colleges can offer should review the list of TCUs below.