Stock art: Student reading outdoors on campus

In an interview with Amanda R. Tachine, assistant professor of higher education at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, Arizona State University, and Jameson David “J.D.” Lopez, assistant professor of educational policy studies and practice at the College of Education, University of Arizona, I discussed the importance of Native American voices in policy dialogues about affordability and student borrowing. Read more on Lumina’s “Borrowers of Color” project.

1. What do affordability and debt issues look like for Native American students, and how are they connected to the story of Native students in higher education?

On the importance of context

Tachine: I think what most people do not know is that Native students come from the most impoverished homes in what we now call America. And I say, “what we now call America” to signify that before this country became a nation-state, our ancestors were here living and thriving in this place, and we are still here. Yet, as we strive to maintain livelihoods, millions of our people struggle financially.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 6.8 million people in the United States identified as American Indians or Alaska Natives in 2018. In 2015-16, the median household income for Native populations was $38,530, compared with non-Hispanic, white households at $65,000. The median income in the Navajo Nation, to which I belong and which is one of the largest tribes in the country, was $26,862. Forty percent of my Navajo people live below the poverty line, nearly double the national Native average of 26.6 percent and nearly five times the national average of 9 percent among whites. These statistics are clear signifiers of the economic conditions that many Native students and families are facing.

We must contrast this evidence with commonly held assumptions of Native people as financially secure (because of federal support and casino revenues). There are real, structural reasons for the economic outcomes of Native peoples that are rooted in historic—and contemporary—oppression and related to the paternalistic role of the federal government toward Native peoples and their land.

About 51 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native students who completed the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) had an expected family contribution of $0. These students understand the financial struggle in their homes, and we can understand why there’s a sense of worry about taking on student loans and incurring debt. Native students who complete bachelor’s degrees graduate with an average debt of $26,000, among those who borrow. Native Americans are second-highest in borrowing among racial categories, with 76 percent taking out loans to pay for college.

The debt story is connected to the larger story of Native students in higher education, which is connected to America’s broader and longer history around the theft of indigenous lands and the sovereign rights of indigenous people.

2. What misconceptions exist about how Native Americans students pay for their education? What’s behind these biases?

Biases and misconceptions

Lopez: One we hear all the time is that Natives go to college for free, which couldn’t be further from the truth. We even hear it on mainstream shows. This perpetuates a stereotype that does damage to students who have to navigate financial aid. Each tribe has its own higher education policies that govern how it funds its students. Sometimes older students or returning students do not qualify; other times, the budget is too small to offer scholarships to support everyone. It’s disheartening to hear.

What’s behind the biases and misconceptions

Tachine: That narrative is rooted in the paternalism the federal government has imposed upon Native peoples connected to treaty obligations and rights. Over 300 treaties were enacted, and many of those treaties included provisions for education and the well-being of Native peoples in exchange for land. Through those processes, settlers instituted a power hierarchy and racist belief that Native people are “less than,” unintelligent, and living off the government. This created a deficit-framing of Native people that is embedded in how we think about Native students and finances.

The idea that Natives go to school for free is connected to this mythology, which then excuses the federal government’s responsibility, as outlined in the treaties, and diminishes the reality of poverty for Native students. The myth is pervasive, even among Native students, and it intimidates them from advocating for themselves.

3. As college affordability receives national attention, largely in terms of price and debt, what should policymakers know about Native borrowers, especially when we could see more student loans in response to COVID-19?

What policymakers should know

Tachine: We need to recognize that Native nations are sovereign and that all legislation must speak to the federal government’s treaty obligations. When stimulus bills and COVID-19 relief conversations first began, Native nations were left out. There is growing concern that Natives are too often not included in critical policymaking. Federal policymakers must increase their awareness of tribal policies and how government processes can align with that of tribes, Tribal Colleges and Universities, and other colleges and universities.

On sovereignty and practitioners

Lopez: We’re not monolithic, but rather we are separate and individual tribal nations. If we’re each sovereign, it is difficult to create all-encompassing policies across the nations. Most administrative processes that would be managed and decided by local governments, such as applying for scholarships or opening a new business, also includes a process with the federal government. Daunting and inefficient administrative processes depress economic development for Native peoples overall—and for Native students seeking to graduate with no or little debt. Lessening the bureaucracy could help students.

Native students must work between the institution and the tribal government in order to get financial aid situated. Without financial aid counselors who understand and can work with tribal governments, students are left discouraged and may miss out on scholarship opportunities. Effective practitioners and advocates play important roles for students and the institutions that enroll them. Disaggregated data also is critical to understanding needs.

4. Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) play important roles for Native students educationally and financially. They often do more with less to serve students. How do these institutions fit into the Native borrowing and affordability conversation?

Unmet student need and TCU finances

Lopez: Institutional financial health, particularly how much debt a college carries, often threatens the accreditation of many institutions that serve low-income students of color. Tribal colleges rely heavily on federal and state dollars—and on students who borrow heavily. When students take on debt and do not pay it back, the debt falls to the institution to cover. There is a constant question that comes up in accreditation reviews, “Why don’t Native students pay back their loans?” I think there is something there that we need to explore more, but for tribal colleges specifically, it is particularly damaging to the future of Native higher education if these colleges cannot retain accreditation. It is a threat to nation-building in Native communities if tribal colleges cannot fulfill their missions.

Loans to Native students

Tachine: Students are really scared about getting a loan. The fear is rooted in generations of Natives struggling financially. Students are fearful of ongoing debt after college and drowning in it. They see family members living paycheck to paycheck. And they see those who started a degree but did not finish stuck paying the debt. We need more research to understand how debt affects college completers and non-completers.

Ultimately, students are going to have to take loans if they cannot cover all their costs. And if they do not finish and accumulate the debt, the debt functions as an oppressive device that maintains social inequality. Our families are fearful of living in debt and packing that onto the next generation.

All colleges and universities benefit from land that was stolen from Native people. The people from whom the land was stolen from are systematically prevented from living and thriving on it. Being able to get a college degree is a critical way Native communities can thrive.

5. How could better national data support a more visible and informed public narrative and more effective policymaking?

Breaking out data by race and ethnicity

Lopez: Disaggregating data by tribe or by region could help us learn more about what’s happening in and across Indian Country. We need more nuance, even if through oversampling. In order to understand if policies are supporting tribal sovereignty, we need to ensure that we capture the voices of the smaller tribes. Data can help drive conversations about sovereignty when the diversity of Native people is represented.

In addition to pulling apart data, we need to ask more relevant questions. Respondents practicing ethnic fraud—claiming an unmerited racial or ethnic background in order to obtain a perceived benefit—can dilute survey findings about Native experiences.

All borrowing is not equal

Tachine: We need to better understand how much tribes contribute (beyond student scholarships) to the operations of colleges and universities. We also should also understand how much Native students and families are tapping other types of credit, such as credit cards and high-interest (often predatory) loans to pay college expenses.

6. What would policies look like if they were more attentive to the needs of Native borrowers? If you were to “decolonize financial aid,” for example, what would that look like?

From disparity to equity 

Lopez: If policies really reflected the history, contributions, and economic reality of Native people, college would be free, or at least affordable without loans. When you think about the U.S. government’s treaty obligations to pay for the education of Native people, the establishment of tribal sovereignty, and the many existing laws that go unenforced, and profit and benefit to this day from the land exchanges the treaties facilitated, it’s clear that Native people have paid heavily into American society. In this case, equity would look like the federal government meeting its treaty obligations. In the least, public colleges, which many tribes still contribute to, should be free to Native students.

What more can be done

Tachine: There already has been effort from some colleges and universities to provide in-state tuition, and some institutions are providing funding toward the tuition of Native students. We need to consistently remind folks about Native students and ask how we can make a college degree affordable. As national conversations about debt forgiveness and free college ensue, we owe it to Native communities—the first people of this land—to make sure they are visible and included in national conversations. We’re still here, and we are not going anywhere.

To learn more about the experiences of Native American students, listen to this episode of APM Reports’ podcast, Educate.

[Editor’s Note: This Q&A is one of three interviews that delve into the experiences of borrowers of color. Wayne Taliaferro and Katherine Wheatle, strategy officers at Lumina Foundation, explore how the insights and findings of researchers’ of color can aid policymakers.]

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