The main obstacle to degree completion among Indigenous students? College costs, a study finds.

Financial strain is the main barrier to higher education for Native students, according to a newly released report by the National Native Scholarship Providers (NNSP). The National Study on College Affordability for Indigenous Students highlights the prevalence of housing and food insecurity among former and current Indigenous college students, even as they provide financial assistance to their families.

Related: Colleges work to increase Native American students’ access and completion >

The report includes quantitative and qualitative data from the NNSP, a collection of the four largest Native American scholarship organizations: the American Indian College Fund, the Cobell Scholarship, the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES), and Native Forward Scholars Fund. A total of 2,789 current and former NNSP college scholarship recipients participated in the study, making it the largest data set on Indigenous students in existence, Diverse Issues in Higher Education reports.

“This may be the first time campus administrators have had Indigenous-centric information on college affordability variables from which to inform their financial aid practices,” said Dr. John Garland, director of research and student success at the Cobell Scholarship.

Related: Black, Latinx, Native American students shouldering more college costs than peers >

Measuring the impact of basic needs insecurity

Financial struggles have had a disproportionate effect on Native students, who often find college costs overwhelming, the report shows. Only 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, a 2021 report by the National Center for Education Statistics indicated.

The new NNSP report provides even greater detail on Native college students’ financial insecurity. Seventy-two percent of current study participants reported running out of money at least once in the last six months, and 53% agreed or strongly agreed that they had experienced food insecurity during college. Sixteen percent of all study participants experienced homelessness while in college.

Many indigenous students weren’t just struggling to meet their own basic needs; they had family obligations, too. The survey reports that 67% of current students are expected to contribute to family bills while in college. With 65% of current Indigenous student study participants coming from households making $35,000 or less, their financial difficulties affect their ability to thrive in college and also their capacity to ensure the financial stability of their families and communities.

Meeting Indigenous students’ needs

To remove these impediments to higher education access, the report suggests institutions: 

  • Improve transparency about expected college costs, including housing, fees, and other non-tuition expenses
  • Offer more tuition and fee waivers, and financial assistance for transportation and basic needs 
  • Increase emergency aid programs 
  • Collect more data and increase staff education about the diverse needs of their Indigenous student populations

Related: Want students to understand just how low their tuition would be? Guarantee it up front. >

For NNSP leaders like Angelique Albert, CEO of Native Forward Scholars Fund, this study begins to shine a light on voices often left out of higher education research. With this report, she tells Forbes, “we can begin to build the foundation for awareness, inclusion, and better understanding of the complexities of Native students’ journey through college.”

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