For Native American students, the end of race-conscious admissions is followed by fear, uncertainty

With the Supreme Court ruling against the use of race-conscious affirmative action in college admissions, experts worry Native students, who have lower college enrollment and graduation rates than any other demographic group in the U.S., will face additional obstacles to higher education, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports. From 2011 to 2021, Native student college enrollment dropped 33%, according to Chronicle data, and the National Center for Education Statistics found that just 36.2% of Indigenous students who enrolled at four-year colleges and universities in 2014 completed their degrees in six years, compared to 60.1% of all students.

Related: Georgetown responds to Supreme Court ruling against affirmative action in admissions >

Obstacles to Native American student success

Financial strain remains the main barrier to higher education for indigenous students, and they, along with Black and Latine students, are more likely to pay for some if not all of their college costs. Additional challenges, such as inadequate internet service, which can prevent indigenous students from completing coursework and connecting with their instructors, and lack of support for cultural values and stressors from historical trauma, can also impede college success for Native American students.

In an effort to increase Native student retention, some colleges have implemented targeted tuition-free programs. The University of California (UC) system’s Native American Opportunity Plan waives tuition and fees for indigenous students who are state residents from federally recognized tribes. The University of Maine; the University of Arizona; and state colleges in Oregon, Michigan, and Montana are among several other institutions that have instituted programs that reduce or eliminate costs of attendance for indigenous students from federally recognized tribes, The Hechinger Report says. 

However, experts fear that the Supreme Court decision could have a chilling effect on scholarship programs for indigenous students, which may face legal challenges after the end of race-conscious admissions. Several colleges have already announced they will no longer consider an applicant’s race when awarding scholarships.

The end of race-conscious admissions, “is just another hurdle that brings Native students further from higher education,” Cibonet Salazar, the program manager at the Center for Native American Indigenous Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, told The Chronicle.

Addressing Native student recruitment and retention

Even before the Supreme Court ruling, Native students faced complexities in the admissions process. College access initiatives, for instance, often exclude indigenous students who don’t belong to federally recognized tribes. Tribes have to meet several criteria to qualify for federal recognition, which includes proof of over 50 years of a collective identity, strong patterns of discrimination by non-members, and shared secular or religious activity. The U.S. government currently does not formally recognize an estimated 400 tribes, according to The Hechinger Report.

To be eligible for financial aid and recruitment programs that have agreements with unrecognized tribes, indigenous students are required to submit a federally issued tribal ID or a letter confirming their tribal enrollment. In lieu of that ID, some institutions accept Certificate Degree of Indian Blood card (CDIB), which identifies an individual’s blood quantum, a measurement of the amount of someone’s “Indian blood” with a controversial history in the U.S.

To create a more inclusive approach, higher education institutions, such as the UC system, are considering geographic diversity as part of their holistic admissions process. That would help ensure colleges only enroll diverse students from every part of the U.S., including Native students from reservations and urban and suburban communities. Indigenous student retention also depends on access to academic counseling, cultural support, and a community of peers who can have an impact on major decisions at their university, says Jason Younker, a member of the Coquille tribe who leads the University of Oregon’s Home Flight Scholars Program, which provides financial aid and addresses retention, graduation, and professional development of students.

“If you don’t have those kinds of things,”  he said to The Hechinger Report, “you’re not a very attractive school—no matter how much tuition you waive.”

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