The University of Minnesota announced Monday it will offer free or reduced tuition to many Native American students attending its five campuses starting in fall 2022, expanding a cost waiver program it previously offered only at its Morris campus.

U leaders touted the new initiative as one of the nation's "most comprehensive free and reduced tuition programs" for Native American students. Incoming freshmen and tribal college transfer students who are enrolled members of one of Minnesota's 11 federally recognized tribal nations will be able to attend the university's Twin Cities, Duluth, Rochester, Crookston and Morris campuses for free or reduced tuition, depending on their family income level.

"For 170 years, our university has focused attentively on the needs of all Minnesotans. Today we are taking a positive step forward in addressing the needs of Indigenous peoples with a history that predates this state and institution — a step I sincerely hope will have a lasting impact on tribal communities," U President Joan Gabel said in a statement.

Qualifying students with an annual family income under $75,000 can attend tuition-free. Those whose families earn up to $125,000 a year will be eligible for tuition discounts of up to 80 to 90%.

Earlier this year, the U's Board of Regents approved a separate program to offer free tuition for students of families earning less than $50,000 annually. Undergraduate students from Minnesota and neighboring states pay about $15,000 per year in tuition and fees at the Twin Cities campus.

The Native American students must attend classes at one of the U campuses directly from high school or a tribal college to qualify for free or reduced tuition. They cannot transfer from other private or public colleges in the state. They also must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA, enroll as a full-time student and maintain a GPA of 2.0 or higher.

Shannon Geshick, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, praised the move as a "wonderful" step in the right direction.

But she said she hopes the university eventually will expand the tuition waiver to include all Native American students, not just those who are enrolled members of the tribes.

"It's not what we're completely looking toward, but it is a really, really good start," Geshick said.

"And I think it's a really great gesture and … a testament to the university's effort to build relationships with the sovereign tribal nations and people."

Gabel has sought to improve the U's relationships with tribal nations since taking office in 2019, meeting with leaders from all 11 federally recognized tribes. Tribal leaders previously had called for an expansion of the Morris tuition waiver program, among other requests.

The Morris tuition program for Native American students has been in place throughout the history of the campus.

It was established in Minnesota statute because of the property's troubled history as the site of a former Native American boarding school. More than 6,000 waivers have been awarded to Morris students since the campus opened.

"Tuition benefits for Native American students will provide more access to the University of Minnesota than ever before. This level of financial assistance — along with the necessary support systems to help Native American students find a welcoming place within our University so they can complete their degree and graduate — can dramatically alter the course of an individual's life," wrote Karen Diver, the U's senior adviser to the president for Native American affairs.

Jennifer Simon, director of the Indian Education Department at Minneapolis Public Schools, said she hopes other universities follow the U's lead. A tuition break "increases the likelihood and opportunity" for Native American students, she said.

"I'm excited for our students and our community, but I'm also thinking, 'It's about time,' " Simon said.

John Bobolink, the supervisor of the American Indian Education Program in St. Paul schools, said the initiative also will "allow for increased exposure to the American Indian perspective … at the collegiate level."

Abdulaziz Mohamed, the U's undergraduate student body president, also commended the U for the decision.

"For too long, Native Americans have faced significant challenges in the higher education system," Mohamed wrote in a statement. "Through this action, the university is taking a pivotal step in combating financial insecurity and injustice."

Ryan Faircloth • 612-673-4234

Mara Klecker • 612-673-4440