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Solving the Funding Riddle

Solving the Funding Riddle

American Indian students have more avenues for funding available; the challenge now is getting the word out to them.

By Garry Boulard

When Leola Tsinnajinnie decided to pursue a major in educational thought and sociocultural studies at the University of New Mexico, she knew she could only afford to attend that state’s largest public university by getting outside support.

“The tuition was not something I would have been able to pay for myself,” says Tsinnajinnie, 27, a graduate assistant for UNM’s Institute for American Indian Education and a teaching assistant for the school’s Native American Studies program. “So I was lucky that I had other places to turn.” She was given a scholarship from her Navajo Diné tribe in southwestern New Mexico. She also received additional support from the American Indian Graduate Center (AIGC), a nonprofit organization whose mission is to support American Indian graduate students.

“And even with that combined support, I am just able to pay for everything I need,” says Tsinnajinnie, who hopes to become a professor in American Indian studies and to teach at a tribal college in the Southwest.

Tsinnajinnie’s educational career has been promising so far. She is a member of the Indigenous Scholars in Dialogue for Critical Consciousness and the Native American Studies Indigenous Research Group. But some education officials with expertise in American Indian scholarship programs say such success stories remain too rare, and a lack of available money and information continue to limit American Indian enrollment in higher education.

“We help more than 100 students a year,” says Pamela Silas, director of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) in Albuquerque, N.M. Despite its name, the organization also awards scholarships for American Indians studying agricultural science, architecture, business and law.

“But I think we really end up serving only about one-third of the applications we get,” says Silas. “There remains a very large
unmet need.”

Nicole Adams, director of communications for the American Indian College Fund, tells a similar story.

“We sat down and did some figuring about two years ago and realized that we are probably only getting support to about 15 percent of the Native American students who need it,” she says.

The AICF hands out $100,000 annually in scholarship support to each of the country’s 32 tribal colleges and universities. “We are one of the biggest sources in the nation providing scholarship support for Native Americans in higher education, yet we are only scratching the surface,” Adams says.

Part of the problem is finding the money for the scholarships. But an equally daunting challenge is getting that money into the hands of needy students, says Bonnie Mausia, scholarship coordinator with American Indian Services in Provo, Utah.

“At one of our events, we invited about 50 chairmen of the local tribes here and gave them two scholarships each that they could hand out to students who wanted to go to college, and only four or five of those scholarships actually ended up being used,” she says.

“I cannot tell you how many times I have heard students tell me that they just didn’t know that there was any support available for them out there,” she continues. “For some reason, they are not getting the information they need at the high-school level or maybe sometimes even within their own tribe. And that really hurts our efforts.”

Despite such obstacles, the number of American Indians attending either a two- or four-year school has more than doubled since the late 1970s. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), there were nearly 166,000 American Indian and Alaskan Native students enrolled in degree-granting schools in 2003.

The increase has been seen at every level of higher education,
but especially in four-year schools, which now host the majority of such students. Tribal colleges represent the largest rate of growth, with a total enrollment topping the 16,000 mark — up 17 percent from 1997.

“The tribal colleges are not only a relatively new phenomenon, but also a wonderful addition to establishing a bridge to the world of higher education,” says Silas. “For many students, going to college means going to a school in their home town. Until very recently that has not been true for American Indians, and it may be one of the primary reasons why their enrollments numbers were lower.”

But even with the presence of the tribal colleges, American Indian students, according to the NCES, are still less likely to be enrolled in a college or university than students from any other demographic group. In 2002, only 17 percent of all American Indians between the ages of 18 and 24 were enrolled in either a college or university, compared to just under 38 percent for the general population.

For Helena Gerhardson, education director with the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, the lower numbers represented by American Indians remain a question of money. “A lot of students who have never had anyone else in their family go to college see that it is expensive and just automatically conclude that it is out of their reach,” she says. “Sometimes they don’t have anyone to talk to who could tell them that not everyone pays to go to school and that there are many, many different sources of funding out there that they may not be aware of.”

By way of example, Gerhardson notes that, in Minnesota, the Chippewa, Sioux and Red Lake tribes all sponsor individual scholarship programs with awards ranging from $3,800 to $6,600 a year. The requirements for the Minnesota Indian Scholarship Program are the same as those demanded by all scholarships funded through the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Applicants must be a member of a federally recognized tribe and must be more than one-fourth American Indian.

Awards that are specifically funded by particular tribes require that the applicant show proof of enrollment in that tribe. “Our scholarships are for members of the Cheyenne-Arapaho tribes,” says Quinton Roman Nose, education director with the Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma.

“Like many tribes, we basically have two sources of funding available,” continues Roman Nose. “One is the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ higher education fund, which all tribes in the United States have, and which is operated either by contract with the tribe or by the BIA on their behalf.”

A newer source of Cheyenne-Arapaho funding comes from gaming revenue, which adds up to $500 per semester on top of the $1,000 offered by the BIA. “It’s not a huge amount,” says Roman Nose, “but that $500 for a low-income student can sometimes make a big difference.”

Currently up to 140 Cheyenne-Arapaho students a year receive BIA scholarships, money from gaming revenue, or both.

Another source of funding comes through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which sponsors, among other programs, the AIGC’s Scholars Program, geared specifically to high school seniors who are going to be first-generation college students.

“That is a huge program for us and has made a difference for thousands of American Indian and Alaska Native students who come to us each year looking for support,” says Marveline Vallo, program assistant with AIGC.

But the center, which was founded in 1969, also offers scholarships specifically for students who are pursuing professional or graduate degrees, says Vallo. “The founders of the center recognized from the beginning that the number of American Indian and Alaska Native students at the graduate level was low, and decided to do everything they could to change that.”

Since 1969, AIGC has provided scholarships for more than 10,000 students. Annually, the center funds up to 400 students, with scholarships ranging from $500 to $4,000.

Scholarship experts say a growing list of privately endowed programs are also offering funding alternatives for students. The new programs include the Eli Lilly Graduate Scholarships, which offer up to $1,250 for American Indian and Chicano undergraduates planning to enter graduate school; and the A.T. Anderson Memorial Scholarship program, which offers $1,000 at the undergraduate level and $2,000 at the graduate level for American Indian students majoring in health science, engineering, natural resources and mathematics, among other subject areas.

“There are more opportunities out there today than ever before,” says Silas of AISES, “and that’s a very important and positive development.”

But Silas also says she thinks some of the many American Indian community programs in rural and isolated sections of the country have been less successful because the scholarship sponsors “just don’t have the relationships they need with these various communities. They don’t know where to go to get the information into the right hands.”

Popular perceptions regarding tribal colleges are another problem, says AICF’s Adams. “Many people still don’t really know exactly what they are. They don’t know where the tribal colleges are or what students they serve. So, very often we have to begin with a basic education effort that is designed simply to raise the awareness level of these schools and go from there.”

Even in the face of such challenges, Roman Nose says the percentage of American Indian and Alaskan Native students in higher education is going to continue to increase, due in large part to the simple existence of so many scholarship options.

“Because there are so many more opportunities out there than there used to be, it is almost inevitable that the numbers of Native American students are going to grow,” he says. “But the students have to do their part, too. What they don’t know about these different scholarship programs, they have to find out. And they have to take their time to apply, apply and apply. That’s what is really going to make a difference.”

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