Beginning fall 2022, the University of California system will waive tuition and fees for students who are California residents and members of federally recognized Native American, American Indian, and Alaska Native tribes, NPR reports. The decision is part of the university’s Native American Opportunity Plan, a new initiative dedicated to advancing diversity and making college more affordable and accessible for the state’s Native American undergraduate and graduate students.
With 109 federally recognized tribes, California is home to more people of Native American and Alaska Native heritage than any other state, The Hill reports. In fall 2021, 1,467 of the 294,664 students across all UC campuses identified as American Indian, one-half percent of the student body, according to university data.
Native American students already enrolled in the UC system also are eligible for the program, says Mishuana Goeman, a professor of gender and American Indian studies at UCLA and member of the Tonawanda Band of Seneca. Goeman tells The Chronicle of Higher Education that the initiative will improve Native students’ quality of life and retention rates at the university. Around 500 existing undergraduate and 160 graduate students are currently estimated to benefit from the program, a university spokesperson told LAist.
Making higher education more affordable for Native American students
The estimated average cost of attending UC in 2022-23 as a state resident and new student living on campus is $38,504 each year, which includes $13,104 in tuition, plus housing, meals, health insurance, and books and supplies. Under the new initiative, UC financial aid or other federal and state financial aid programs will cover fees for eligible Native American students without requiring demonstration of financial need, according to The Chronicle.
UC limited its tuition and fee reprieve to Native American students from federally recognized tribes—sovereign nations—to stay in compliance with Proposition 209, which bans affirmative action and prohibits discrimination and preferential treatment based on race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin by public institutions.
Many California tribes are not officially recognized, and receiving federal recognition can take decades, says KCRW. After UC’s announcement, the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, one of California’s federally recognized tribes, said it would provide a $2.5 million scholarship fund covering tuition and fees for both non-federally recognized California Native American students and students from federally recognized tribes who need additional financial support.
Greg Sarris, tribal chairman for the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, says he hopes the scholarship can fill in the gaps left by the UC initiative so that more Native American students attend UC tuition-free. Access to higher education is “crucial to a tribe’s continuance and success,” says Sarris.
‘Acknowledging historical wrongs’
The UC initiative is not the first to waive college tuition for Native American students. However, it is the most comprehensive, says Phenocia Bauerle, director of Native American student development at UC Berkeley and a member of Apsáalooke (Crow Nation). For Bauerle and other UC officials, this program is not about preferential treatment but rather about redressing past wrongs.
The plan, Bauerle asserts, has “huge implications” for UC “being a land-grant university, because the sale of Native land that was taken in a number of ways—but primarily stolen—really helped start the university system.”
In a letter to university chancellors, UC System President Michael V. Drake wrote, “The University of California is committed to recognizing and acknowledging historical wrongs endured by Native Americans. I am proud of the efforts the University has made to support the Native American community.”