SALEM, Ore. — Jaeci Hall completed her dissertation in tears. She was writing about the importance of revitalizing and teaching Indigenous languages, specifically the Nuu-wee-ya’ language and her tribe’s dialects. “I spent months writing,” she said, “just crying while I wrote because of how it felt to not be recognized.”

Hall — who graduated in 2021 with a doctorate in linguistics from the University of Oregon — is the language coordinator for the Coquille Indian Tribe.

But Hall is not part of the federally recognized tribe of the Coquille. She’s part of the Confederated Tribes of Lower Rogue, which she described as the descendants of nine women who relocated and returned to the Rogue River after the Rogue River Wars of the 1850s in southern Oregon. Despite their rich history and Hall’s documentation of her heritage, Hall and her ancestors are not acknowledged by the United States government as a tribal nation.

Hall’s status meant that when she was earning her degrees, she didn’t qualify for financial assistance designed for Native students. She would not have been eligible for tuition waiver programs instituted in Oregon last year that reduce or eliminate costs for students who belong to federally recognized tribes.

Oregon instituted a statewide tuition waiver program for Native students last year, but it applies only to those from federally recognized tribes. Credit: Don & Melinda Crawford/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

For decades, a handful of individual states and schools have offered financial assistance to Native students. A new wave of offerings this past year – spurred in part by growing land rights movements and a larger focus on racial justice following the murder of George Floyd – shows the programs are becoming increasingly popular.

The programs are meant to help reduce the barrier of cost for Native students, who have historically faced significant challenges in attending and staying in college. Native students have the lowest college-going rate of any group in the United States, a third less than the national average, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And since 2010, Native enrollment in higher-ed institutions also has declined by about 37 percent, the largest drop in any student demographic group. Studies suggest affordability is one of the leading causes of attrition.

But in nearly every iteration of these programs — old and new — only some Indigenous people benefit.

That’s because the U.S. government does not formally acknowledge the status of an estimated 400 tribes and countless Indigenous individuals, thus shutting them out of programs meant to reduce barriers to higher education. Tribes have to meet several criteria in their petitions for federal recognition, including proof they’ve had decades of a collective identity, generations of descendants and long-standing, autonomous political governance.

As a result, thousands of Native students aren’t getting the same opportunities as their peers in recognized tribes and are left with a disproportionate amount of debt. Affected students say the disparate treatment also leaves social and emotional wounds.

“I made it through it,” Hall said, adding with a laugh that she did most of her dissertation work remotely during Covid, often with her toddler playing around her. “And I would have made it through it better if I had had more support.”

Native students have the lowest college-going rate of any group in the United States, a third less than the national average, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Credit: Shae Hammond for The Hechinger Report

Hall is now paying off about $190,000 in student loans, the cumulative cost of her undergraduate degree from Linfield College in Oregon, her master’s at the University of Arizona and her doctorate from the University of Oregon. A loan forgiveness program through her work will cut her obligation to roughly $50,000, but the total harms her chances of receiving a loan or improving her credit.

Hall’s children, who have Native status because of her father’s enrollment in a recognized tribe, will likely have opportunities Hall did not. If her daughter, for example, a Eugene middle schooler, maintains a 3.0 grade-point average, she will be able to attend the University of Oregon for free.

There are “so many people that are stuck in poverty and stuck in situations where they can’t get an education,” Hall said. “I started thinking … how hard their lives are, and how much of a difference could be made.”

Related: States were adding lessons about Native American history. Then came the anti-CRT movement

Individual schools and states across the country have instituted varying forms of these tuition programs over the years. The University of Maine, for example, has had a tuition waiver option since the 1930s. The program helped the school retain its Native students during the pandemic at higher rates than the national average, according to Marcus Wolf, a university spokesperson. Michigan and Montana have had waivers available for Native students for almost half a century.

Oregon joined this list, beginning with the 2022-23 school year, when then-Gov. Kate Brown announced the introduction of a statewide grant fund. The Oregon Tribal Student Grant covers tuition, housing and books at public institutions and some private universities for undergraduate and graduate students belonging to Oregon’s nine federally recognized tribes. The money is awarded only after students apply for federal or state financial aid.

In its first year, 416 students received the grant, according to Endi Hartigan, a spokesperson for the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission. Oregon lawmakers allocated $19 million for the first year — based on an estimate that 700 or more students would receive a grant — and this legislative session, they codified the program in state statute and allocated $24 million for the next two years.

Several state universities – including Western Oregon, Oregon State, Portland State and Southern Oregon – also began providing an additional form of financial aid. Last year, these schools extended in-state tuition prices to members of all 570-plus federally recognized tribes in the U.S., regardless of what state they live in. The same is true for the University of California system, the University of Arizona and other institutions across the country.

The University of Oregon has tried to extend its tuition waiver programs for Native students to at least some members of unrecognized tribes. Credit: Don & Melinda Crawford/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Western Oregon started its Native American Tuition program last fall. It’s been a slow start to get students interested, with public records requests revealing that fewer than 10 students applied for or participated in the program in its inaugural year. However, the impact it has on those students is substantial: The university estimates the program saves participating students nearly $20,000 per student per year.

Anna Hernandez-Hunter, who until June was the director of admissions for Western Oregon, said the numbers are low because the program is new and the university enrolls few students from out of state (only about 19 percent of undergraduates). She said the university has made the application process easier for next year, published more information online and made sure admission counselors are sharing the information with prospective students.

But eligibility for that program, like the vast majority of such tuition offerings, requires enrollment in a federally recognized tribe.

Western Oregon’s Office of the President, as well as communications and admissions officials with the University of Oregon,  declined to comment specifically on why unrecognized tribes are excluded from the programs. One university official said on background that, generally speaking, program staff at any university have to follow federal and state guidelines, as well as standards for who qualifies for the resources.

Institutions typically validate a student’s enrollment by requiring a federally issued tribal ID or a letter from a recognized tribal council confirming enrollment. Native advocates said some students don’t have this kind of documentation even when they are enrolled in a recognized tribe. Documentation depends on the information families can access to prove their lineage. Enrollment requirements differ from tribe to tribe, and after generations of forced removal and assimilation, such documentation can be limited. 

Limiting which Native students get financial assistance is especially significant, given the rising cost of post-secondary degrees. According to the College Board, the average cost of tuition and fees at a public, four-year school was $10,940 for in-state students in 2022-23 or $28,240 for out-of-state students. And research by the Education Data Initiative shows Native students borrow more and pay more per month in student loan debt than their white peers.

Native students have the lowest college-going rate of any group in the United States, a third less than the national average, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Some colleges or states have agreements with specific unrecognized tribes. Oregon, for example, allows members of Washington’s Chinook Indian Nation, which is fighting to regain its federal recognition, to at least access in-state tuition because the Chinook have tribal boundaries in Oregon.

Jason Younker, who is part of the Coquille tribe, leads the University of Oregon’s Home Flight Scholars Program, one of the school’s many assistance programs available for Native students. Launched last October, Home Flight not only works to recruit more Native students to the university but also provides funding, mentors, culturally specific programs and support to help Native students adjust to life on campus.

Younker said students can prove their eligibility for the program by showing a Certificate Degree of Indian Blood card (CDIB) instead of enrollment records. Blood quantum, or the measurement of someone’s “Indian blood,” has a long, controversial history in the U.S. And certificates are only available to people related to members of recognized tribes. But Younker said this allows someone to show they are Native without enrollment records since some tribes’ enrollment requirements exclude those who still have high percentages of Native blood.

Program leaders also allow students, even those from unrecognized tribes, to apply to Home Flight via letters from council members, in an attempt to extend this support to at least some of Oregon’s unrecognized students pursuing undergraduate degrees.

Younker said the question should no longer be: “Can I afford to go to college?” The question should be: “Where can I go to college?”

“Each and every one of us has had an ancestor that sacrificed and survived so that they could have the choices that they do today,” he said. “I always tell students: ‘It doesn’t matter where you go; it matters that you do go.’”

But he said tuition assistance isn’t enough to attract and retain Native American students. To succeed in this, colleges must also recruit on reservations, provide academic counseling, cultural support and a community of peers, and include Native leaders in major decisions at the university. “If you don’t have those kinds of things, you’re not a very attractive school — no matter how much tuition you waive,” he said.

Related: 3 Native American students try to find a home at college

For students and parents like Yvette Perrantes, the lack of support affects multiple generations.

Perrantes wanted to go to college as an adult so she could move into a higher income bracket. She’s a member and leader of the Duwamish Tribe, who lived on the land that is now South Seattle, Renton and Kent, and have been called Seattle’s first people. They’ve fought a decades-long battle for federal recognition that continues today.

Without tribal status and consequent financial aid, Perrantes owed $27,000 in student loans after finishing her associate degree in clean energy technologies at Washington’s Shoreline Community College in 2014. She deferred her loan payments until she no longer could. Threatened with having her wages garnished, she filed for bankruptcy. Her credit score took a hit. She had to keep making payments, but now had no chance of leasing a car, getting a credit card or exercising other opportunities.

Yvette Perrantes is a member and leader of the Duwamish Tribe. They’ve fought a decades-long battle for federal recognition that continues today. Credit: Photo provided by Yvette Perrantes

Her son was looking into college at the same time Perrantes faced these financial hardships. He hoped to receive an athletic scholarship, but when he tore his ACL, the young student-athlete stopped pursuing higher education altogether. In his eyes, Perrantes said, all it would lead to was debt.

The effects of exclusion from federal recognition and benefits are compounded, Perrantes said, for those who come from families, like hers, with intergenerational trauma and parents who are “doing a lot of healing themselves.”

Not “being included in this process with the federal government and not having equal access to student loans and money for education, and more interest rates, you know, everything that comes along with federal recognition,” she said, “it’s pretty crushing to the spirit.”

Perrantes now works as a program manager for Mother Nation, a Seattle-based nonprofit that focuses on cultural services, advocacy, mentorship and homeless prevention for Native women. She worries that students who go out of state for school may be disproportionately denied aspects of their identity. If someone isn’t a recognized tribal member, she said, they aren’t allowed to participate in certain cultural practices such as burning, smudging, harvesting certain trees or having an eagle feather. Those barriers are even more pronounced when the person is from a different state. 

“[H]ow are we going to be educated enough to cite policy, to fight for recognition? We need more Natives who are educated and who are willing to do the work for the people.”

Yvette Perrantes, a member of the Duwamish tribe and a leader on its council

“Being Native and being grounded in your ways, traditionally, and being out of state, outside your family, outside of your tradition, outside of your culture, and then you’re not being able to practice your cultural ways. You know, I think it’s impactful on your emotional, spiritual and mental health,” she said. “We need those to sustain ourselves as students.”

Perrantes still encourages Indigenous students to pursue education at all costs. That way, she said, they can be the ones making laws and the ones teaching their history in the classroom. “The pen is mightier than the sword,” she said. “I know that sounds so cliche, but how are we going to be educated enough to cite policy, to fight for recognition? We need more Natives who are educated and who are willing to do the work for the people.”

As states and institutions expand tuition waiver programs, Hall, the doctoral graduate from the Confederated Tribes of Lower Rogue, would like to see different ways used to verify a claim of being Native and for resources to extend to unrecognized students. Her advice for Native students is to be as stubborn as they can, to believe in themselves and to remember that any kind or any level of education will improve their lives and that of their community.

“We all have some history. We’re survivors. Regardless,” Hall said. Education “is an answer to the prayers of our ancestors, no matter if we’re recognized or not.”

This story about Native American tuition waiver programs was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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