Taylor Fairbanks was hopeful when the University of Minnesota announced a new program to cover tuition for Native American students — part of a high-profile effort to remedy historic injustices.
She is the daughter of a member of the White Earth Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, and also descends from the Ojibwe of Canada and Ho-Chunk of Wisconsin. But when she and her parents in St. Paul looked into the tuition program, they learned that Fairbanks didn't qualify because she is not an enrolled member of a Minnesota tribe and her family slightly surpassed the household income limit.
"I kind of felt disappointed," Fairbanks said. She decided to enroll at the Twin Cities campus anyway and now, as a first-year student, hears Native classmates lament that few qualify for the program. "It's not really helping the majority."
Just 18 out of 146 Native freshmen at the University of Minnesota's campuses in Crookston, Duluth, Rochester and the Twin Cities are receiving tuition breaks through the Native American Promise Tuition Program in its first year, according to a university spokesman.
Officials said the university this semester has more Native American freshmen systemwide than any year since it began tracking that demographic data in 1987. But the small fraction of students receiving promise tuition funds belies the university's ambitious announcement one year ago of "a significant expansion of Native American student tuition support, a new initiative that will be among the nation's most comprehensive free and reduced tuition programs for Native American students."
Starting in fall 2022, the university said, it would provide free or reduced tuition on any of its five campuses to first-year undergraduate students and tribal college transfer students who are enrolled citizens in one of the state's 11 federally recognized tribal nations. The university said the program expanded on a full tuition waiver program at the university's Morris campus, where all Natives can go for free regardless of income, state residency or tribal enrollment.
But the Native American Promise Tuition Program is far more limited than the program in Morris, where school officials said another 108 Native freshmen students receive a full tuition waiver.
The university said it expects to provide $90,000 in tuition for the first year of the new program — a number it believes will grow with successive student classes — with tuition money from the program filling in gaps for beneficiaries after other financial aid awards.
"Why put this in place and then put requirements that might prevent the majority of the Native students from receiving it?" asked Sam Strong, tribal secretary of Red Lake Nation in northern Minnesota.
Strong and other Natives said they want the initiative expanded to help all Indigenous students, similar to the Morris tuition waiver.
"I don't think it was meant to really make a meaningful impact — I think it was done to satisfy the public relations perceptions on the school," he said.
The program also limits availability based on income; tuition is free for freshmen who are Minnesota tribal members with a household income up to $75,000 and is covered between 80% and 90% for those making up to $125,000.
Karen Diver said she always thought there would be dozens, not hundreds, of Natives in the program — and noted that it's a slim demographic.
"It was a reasonable first step to help figure out what we should be budgeting for, and whether or not we could expand any kind of eligibility," said Diver, senior adviser to the University of Minnesota President for Native American Affairs.
Why not expand the program to include all Natives?
"How do you budget for that?" she asked. "How do you even access demographic information regarding who might be eligible as a descendant? … You still have to try to plan somewhat for how much it's going to cost."
Tadd Johnson, the first Native American to serve on the University Board of Regents, said he was expecting more students in the first year but it's a new program "and they weren't sure exactly how it was going to work."
He called it a "good faith start" and said the university should work closely with the tribes to make the program better. Johnson has heard from tribal leaders that they'd like to see more participation, and on a trip to the Bois Forte Indian Reservation this week he heard from several Native parents who questioned why their children didn't qualify.
"Would I love to see everybody get a tuition waiver, all the Native American students?" asked Johnson, a member of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa. "Yes, in fact, I'd like a lot more financial help for all the students, but there are limitations. … we need to find innovative and creative ways to expand this program before we promise more than we can deliver — I think we need to make sure the money is there, and I will strive for that as a regent."
The flagship Twin Cities campus was built on Dakota land ceded in nineteenth-century treaties. The Duluth campus stands on land that once belonged to Ojibwe people and other Natives, and the Morris campus is on the site of an Indian boarding school that used to forcibly assimilate Native children.
The Minnesota Indian Affairs Council in 2020 renewed calls on the university to remedy its legacy of injustice against Native people, and in recent years, the university has taken unprecedented steps to engage with the tribal leaders.
Ninety-six Native freshmen students attend the Twin Cities campus, and 26 are in a federally recognized tribe. That means that most are like Fairbanks — descendants of tribal members who cannot qualify for the new tuition program.
Fairbanks considered going to Morris for free tuition but wanted to live close to home. She took out a "reasonable amount" in student loans to attend the Twin Cities campus, where she majors in sociology and American Indian studies.
"I feel like it should be expanded so more students are eligible … expand it to the amount that Morris is doing," Fairbanks said.
Her freshman classmate Addison Thompson is a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. Going to college is not cheap, and for some Natives "you're already behind growing up and then trying to even go through high school can be difficult, and just trying to go to college … that definitely affects people," she said.
Thompson enrolled at the Twin Cities campus this fall and is on a pre-med track. She said most of her tuition was covered by other financial aid and the promise tuition program paid just $900. But Thompson wants more Native students to benefit.
"They made it seem like it was more accessible to more Native Americans in Minnesota," she said.