Oregon joins states offering free and reduced college tuition for Native Americans this year

Members of the state’s nine federally recognized tribes will pay little to no tuition this school year, and three universities will extend in-state tuition to members of all federally recognized tribes in the U.S.

By: - August 25, 2022 6:00 am

Southern Oregon University in Ashland is facing a $5 million budget shortfall. (Al Case/Flickr)

Members of Oregon’s nine federally recognized tribes can attend the state’s public universities and community colleges practically free this school year, and members of federally recognized tribes from around the country will be eligible for in-state tuition at the school’s two largest universities. 

In May, the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission rolled out a grant for members of Oregon-based tribes, covering the average cost of attendance at the state’s eight public universities, 17 community colleges and 14 of the state’s 18 private nonprofit colleges. The grants cover everything not already paid by other state and federal aid and can be used to help cover housing and book costs, too. 

This summer, three public universities in Oregon announced they’d go even further, offering in-state tuition to members of all 574 federally recognized tribes across the U.S. Among them are the state’s two largest universities by enrollment, Oregon State University and Portland State University. On Monday, Southern Oregon University announced it, too, would offer the same deal.

It makes Oregon one of a small but growing number of states offering free and reduced tuition to Native American students in an effort to boost enrollment and graduation rates among the population.

Nationwide, about 24% of Native American students ages 18 to 24  are enrolled in a college or university, about half the rate of the general population, according to the National Center of Education Statistics. In Oregon, about 48% of Native students enroll in college after high school, about 15% less than the rate for all high school graduates in the state. 

Oregon now joins Michigan and Montana in making tuition at public universities free to members of tribes based in the state, along with several public universities doing so independently, such as the University of Minnesota at Morris and the University of Maine. This summer, the University of Arizona announced it would offer free tuition to Native students, and the University of California system, the nation’s largest, announced this summer that it would waive tuition for members of federally recognized tribes within its borders. 

Free tuition for Oregon’s Native students 

In late 2021, Gov. Kate Brown joined Oregon’s tribal leaders and the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission to discuss equity and access gaps in higher education among the state’s Native high school graduates and their non-Native peers. A survey from the commission found that 40% of Native American students at Oregon’s public universities who had received financial aid still struggled to afford college. The coalition recommended the Legislature allocate money to a grant program to cover those costs, and in February, the Legislature approved $19 million dollars to fund one year of the Tribal Student Grant program.

It will cover the average cost of attendance at public universities, community colleges and the bulk of tuition at most of the state’s private nonprofit schools for Native students enrolled in Oregon-based tribes. The grants awarded for private schools are capped at the average cost of the most expensive Oregon public university. Students are informed by their college’s financial aid office of their award amounts according to Endi Hartigan, communications director at the Higher Education Coordinating Commission.

As of Aug. 22, 423 students had applied and are tentatively eligible for the grant, according to Hartigan. Despite an Aug. 1 application deadline, she said in an email that the commission will still continue to accept applications for any eligible student hoping to enroll this fall. 

“We will continue to make awards until funds are exhausted,” she wrote. 

The commission is recommending the grant program be continued after this school year, and will ask the Legislature to approve another round of funding in 2023. 

A deal for tribal members across the U.S.

The state’s two biggest universities, Oregon State and Portland State, this summer announced they’d be offering in-state tuition to any Native student enrolled in one of 574 federally recognized tribes across the country.

Last fall, 174 Native students enrolled at OSU either online or on one of its two campuses in Corvallis and Bend, said Steve Clark, vice president for university relations and marketing.

He estimates about 29 were nonresident students who could qualify for the new in-state tuition policy this school year. 

Portland State hasn’t collected data on the enrollment of Native students, according to Katy Swordfisk, a communications officer for the school. But under the new policy students from tribes based outside Oregon will benefit from in-state tuition that is about $10,000 less per year than it is for out-of-state students. Non-Oregon-based Native students will pay the in-state cost of about $19,000 per year as opposed to $29,000, a reduction of about $420 per credit hour. 

Southern Oregon University in Ashland is the latest to announce it will offer in-state tuition to Native students from outside Oregon. In-state tuition means some Native students will pay up to $18,000 less this year depending on the state they are coming from and the degree program they choose, said university spokesperson Joe Mosley. 

According to Mosley, 251 students at Southern Oregon University identified as Native American last fall. Among them, 167 were from Oregon but just 11 were enrolled in one of the state’s federally recognized tribes. 

At each of these three universities, students who submit documentation of their tribal status while applying automatically qualify for in-state rates.

Who qualifies for Oregon Tribal Student Grants and where:

Enrolled members of nine tribes:

  • Burns Paiute Tribe
  • Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians
  • Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde
  • Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians
  • Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation
  • Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs
  • Coquille Indian Tribe
  • Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians
  • Klamath Tribes

Participating  universities:

  • Eastern Oregon University
  • Oregon Health and Science University
  • Oregon Institute of Technology
  • Oregon State University
  • Oregon State University – Cascades Campus
  • Portland State University
  • Southern Oregon University
  • University of Oregon
  • Western Oregon University

Participating community colleges:

  • Blue Mountain Community College
  • Central Oregon Community College
  • Chemeketa Community College
  • Clackamas Community College
  • Clatsop Community College
  • Columbia Gorge Community College
  • Klamath Community College
  • Lane Community College
  • Linn-Benton Community College
  • Mount Hood Community College
  • Oregon Coast Community College
  • Portland Community College
  • Rogue Community College
  • Southwestern Oregon Community College
  • Tillamook Bay Community College
  • Treasure Valley Community College
  • Umpqua Community College

Private colleges and universities:

  • Bushnell University in Eugene
  • Corban University in Salem
  • George Fox University in Newberg
  • Lewis & Clark College in Portland
  • Linfield University in McMinnville
  • Mount Angel Seminary in Saint Benedict
  • Multnomah University in Portland
  • National University of Natural Medicine in Portland
  • Pacific Northwest College of Art  in Portland
  • Pacific University in Forest Grove
  • Reed College in Portland
  • University of Portland
  • Warner Pacific University in Portland
  • Willamette University  in Salem

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said that the grants were capped at the average cost of tuition at Oregon’s public universities. The grants are capped at the average cost of the most expensive public university in the state.

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Alex Baumhardt
Alex Baumhardt

Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post.