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Native American Students at UCs Get Free Tuition. Here's Why It Isn't Enough

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A native American woman in a white dress and a Native American man in a blue shirt and two people in the background during a ceremony.
Carlos Morales and Michelle Villegas-Frazier participate in a sage-burning ritual outside of the Native American Academic Student Success Center at UC Davis on April 1, 2024. (José Luis Villegas/CalMatters)

For high school senior Robert McConnell, an acceptance to UC Santa Cruz would all but guarantee his attendance. That’s because, as a member of a federally recognized tribe, McConnell would not have to pay tuition to pursue his dreams of studying marine biology under the UC Native American Opportunity Plan.

Launched in 2021, the University of California plan offers free tuition to any member of a federal or state-recognized Native American tribe who can provide proof of membership. McConnell, a member of the Hoopa Valley Tribe in rural Northern California, said an acceptance will grant him opportunities that aren’t available in his unincorporated tribal community.

Over 85% of the residents in Hoopa identify as Native American or Alaskan Native. Leaving behind cultural and family support to attend far-away institutions can be extremely difficult for Native students. The nearest UC campus to Hoopa is Davis, 200 miles away.

For the low-to-middle-income Native students of Hoopa, an opportunity to attend UC is invaluable. The reported monthly income for families in the small territory is just over $55,000 a year — qualifying many for federal and state tuition assistance.

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“It’s really easy to get stuck here in Hoopa Valley, in this little community,” McConnell said. Out of the nearly 3,000 residents of Hoopa, only about 16% have a bachelor’s degree.

But there is a caveat in the system’s opportunity plan — funds can only go toward paying tuition, not the non-tuition-related expenses like housing and transportation that constitute the bulk of expenses (PDF) for California students. Paying out of pocket for rent in expensive areas is especially daunting for prospective students like McConnell, who must relocate to pursue his education.

Californians who identify as Native account for 1.7% of the population statewide, or around 660,000 people, according to 2022 census data. Across the UC system, 1,788 Native students constitute 0.6% of the total student body.

The California State University system enrolls around half (PDF) the Native students UC does, with 833 students comprising 0.2% of enrollment in Fall 2023. The California Community Colleges enrolled 6,580 Native students in 2022–2023, around 0.3% of its total student population. None of these counts include Native Hawaiian students.

Native students and campus administrators report that the UC is still a long way from being a place where Native students can thrive. Native high schoolers who spoke to CalMatters reported feeling hopeful about their admission, but currently enrolled Native students report that strains on their student budgets along with insufficient resources and a lack of Native faculty mentors have made their educational experience at the UC less enriching than they expected.

Native American Opportunity Plan only covers tuition

Cedar Schaeffer, a third-year public health major at UC Irvine and member of the Round Valley Tribe, said the plan’s limits have had a large impact on his student budget.

“It doesn’t cover housing. It doesn’t even cover the tech fee waiver at UC Irvine,” said Schaeffer, who grew up about 70 miles from Irvine on the Pala Band of Indians Reservation. “So there’s more than about $3,000 that I usually pay every year.”

Cedar Schaeffer, president of the American Indian Student Association, at UC Irvine on March 28, 2024. (Zaydee Sanchez/CalMatters)

Like many other forms of financial aid, related college expenses such as housing and books are not covered by the plan. According to the California Student Aid Commission’s 2023–24 student expense budgets (PDF), non-tuition-related costs can amount to an additional $5,000 a year for students in on-campus housing, on top of the dorm rent rates set by the campus. Non-tuition-related costs can balloon up to $27,000 for off-campus students.

The system estimated it would grant $2.4 million in tuition assistance to Native students in the 2022–23 term funded by state and federal grants. The Public Policy Institute of California estimated the funds assisted 500 undergraduates and 160 graduate students during the first term.

In Hoopa Valley, McConnell said the financial aid he expects to receive would already cover tuition costs, meaning he could not use the plan’s tuition waiver. To afford the cost of living 400 miles away in pricey Santa Cruz, McConnell said outside scholarship assistance will be vital.

Amanda Putnam, a Native American Recruitment & Outreach Specialist at UC Merced, said she doesn’t believe the current plan fully accomplishes the UC’s goal of making its campuses more accessible and affordable for Native students. She said non-tuition costs alone could dissuade many students from considering the UC.

“It’s daunting to have $10,000 to $15,000 to even $20,000 of housing facing them,” Putnam said. “I would say that that’s probably the biggest portion, about half the [current] students.”

UCs lack Native resources and representation

Even accounting for the rise in admissions, Indigenous students composed 1% of total UC student admissions (PDF) in 2022–23. Systemwide, Native-identifying faculty and teaching assistants represent about 219 of the 73,024 total at the UC, just over 0.3% as of October 2023.

Schaeffer himself was informed by a family member that applying to the UC could save him thousands, and UC Irvine was a more affordable option compared to his alternatives on the East Coast. But Schaeffer said that once he arrived at UC Irvine, he was appalled at the lack of Native representation on campus. Schaeffer said he was surprised at the amount of work Native student groups are expected to put in to organize events and garner additional community resources.

“Representation really is a huge factor,” he said. “When you don’t have your community on campus, you’re less motivated to continue on. I know a lot of people feel unsupported on campus, and I’ve even thought about transferring to another institution.”

The rise in Native enrollment has shifted the focus of administrators and faculty onto providing more support for potential and current Native students, according to Pheonecia Bauerle, chair of the UC-wide Native American Advisory Council and director of Native student development at UC Berkeley.

“It shows the [plan] encourages more people to apply,” she said. “As we’re getting more students, I’m trying to ramp up on creating frameworks for how to understand, how to serve the students. When you have small numbers, it’s usually how it starts.”

Eight UCs have created spaces to foster a closer Native student community. UC Irvine and UC Merced are the only two campuses that have yet to establish a physical, on-campus resource center for Native students that is run by faculty or staff.

Sofia (center), Carlos Morales (left) and Stormi Alejandre (right) take part in an after-Easter gathering at the Native American Academic Student Success Center at UC Davis on April 1, 2024. (José Luis Villegas/CalMatters)

Putnam, at UC Merced, said a lack of funding compared to other, more established UCs has limited the resources she’s able to offer her Native students. According to Bauerle, even the oldest UC in the system, UC Berkeley, only expanded the multicultural center to add a Native student wing when she was hired 10 years ago.

“We’re not at the place yet of establishing any programs or things like that,” Putnam said. “The funding just isn’t there yet. Me being able to be that one-on-one support for students has been huge.”

Native students are filling gaps in programming

Some students have taken action themselves to fill the void in resources and programming. On UCLA’s campus, Native student groups coordinate on-campus events with the Native American Studies department and the campus administration, but organize most of their cultural events, recruitment efforts and informational tables.

Maya Araujo — a fourth-year American Indian Studies major and vice president of the Native American Indigenous Student Association at UCLA — said resources are primarily offered by students.

“We are in contact with [administrators], but it’s kind of like nagging them,” Araujo said. “It’s kind of difficult to get resources, even from our American Indian Studies Center. … It’s mostly like us advocating for ourselves.”

Without student intervention, the resources for Native students on campus wouldn’t be enough, Araujo added. Even at UCLA, where the Native student population is the largest by number at the UC at 321 students in Fall 2023, Araujo said there is little representation among faculty. UCLA employed 15 Native faculty members in Fall 2022.

Students at other UCs have even less communication with the administration. Christine Frazier, a fourth-year student studying ecology, behavior and evolution at UC San Diego and a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, said students arrange most of their own events and cultural celebrations.

“Any Native events, whether that be Native American and/or the Intertribal Resource Center, it’s mostly Natives who go or work there,” Frazier said.

Difficulties in recruiting Native students

One of the reasons Frazier decided to attend UC San Diego was because of a connection she made with a member of the Intertribal Resource Center on campus during her UC application process. Upon arriving, Frazier — who now co-chairs the Native American and Indigenous Student Alliance — was shocked to find virtually no representation outside of meetings with Native student groups.

“We’re definitely a small number there, especially with my club,” she said. “Most of the time, I’m one of the only Indigenous or Native students in really any setting, except when I’m at these Intertribal Resource Center or Native American and Indigenous Student Association events.”

It would be difficult to attract more Native students to the UC without established student, faculty or administrative representation, Frazier said. In her four years at UC San Diego, she has only had one Native professor and rarely communicates with administrators. Currently, 0.2% of faculty members at UC San Diego are Native.

Each UC attracts a unique student and faculty base, which means individual campuses have to emphasize distinct recruitment efforts, Bauerle said. At UC Berkeley, Bauerle focuses her recruitment through the many Native organizations in the Bay Area, such as the Intertribal Friendship House in Oakland — one of the first Native community centers in the state.

“Fewer Native students come from reservations and more are growing up in urban, suburban or rural areas,” Bauerle said. “Their experience with communities is going to look a lot different and so it means to adjust how we offer programs and meet students where they’re at.”

At UC Merced, Puntam said recruitment is more concentrated on reservations; she attends powwows and interacts directly with tribes like the Yokuts and Miwuk in the areas surrounding Merced to attract Native students.

The UC’s plans for the future

Some faculty and students point to UC Davis as a model for serving Native students. The campus has two dedicated programs: the Native American Academic Student Success Center and the Native American Retention Initiative Program.

Student resource centers, scholarship opportunities and community-driven events can make the difference for prospective Native students.

For example, McConnell said UC Davis’ shared interest communities are a primary reason for his application. Shared interest communities are living and learning spaces for certain student groups, like Native students, to congregate and explore their cultures and history. Around 390 students, most but not all Native, live together in the Yosemite dormitory at UC Davis as part of the Native shared interest community.

The rest of the UC campuses would like to take a more aggressive approach to Native student recruitment and tribal partnerships, though no official timelines have been set, Bauerle said. She added that each UC campus will likely be taking a unique approach that benefits its student base.

“Davis, a little bit at Berkeley, UCLA, San Diego, they’re partnering with tribes in different capacities, and allowing graduate students to see opportunities to do work with Indigenous communities,” Bauerle said.

Posters of past Native American cultural events hang in the communal space at Yosemite Hall at UC Davis on April 1, 2024. (José Luis Villegas/CalMatters)

Additionally, the UC has work to do reconciling relationships with Native tribes by cataloging and returning Native ancestral remains and artifacts that campuses have in their possession. Multiple state audit reports found the UC system lacked the policies, urgency and staffing to comply with Native repatriation laws.

Some progress is being made, including new policies governing repatriation the UC issued in 2021. Last October, UC Berkeley also took the first step to return 4,400 Native remains and 25,000 Native cultural artifacts to California tribes in what would be the largest repatriation for the campus to date.

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Bauerle is advocating for universal recruitment and retention standards across the UC that cater to all Native students, regardless of their campus. “Not all campuses look the same or have the same resources that they’re able to provide,” she said.

Schaeffer said what he’d like to see most is for UC administrators to play a larger role in assuring that Native students have proper resources and directories for those resources on campuses.

“I think for the future, we really want to be able to look towards leadership on campus — the chancellor, the deans, those administration positions,” Schaeffer said. “We really want to be able to ask them for help, not have those barriers of, ‘Oh, we’re out of office,’ or, ‘I’m gonna refer you to someone else.’”

Buchanan is a fellow with the College Journalism Network, a collaboration between CalMatters and student journalists from across California. CalMatters higher education coverage is supported by a grant from the College Futures Foundation.

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