University of Colorado Boulder freshman Jenna Whiteplum poses for a portrait on Monday, August 23. Whiteplum, who will study business, is Northern Arapaho and originally from Lander, Wyoming. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

About 200 Native American students enrolled in state colleges and universities should each see their annual tuition slashed by about $15,000 this year under a new law that provides in-state status to members of 48 tribes with historical ties to Colorado.

While the number of students immediately impacted is small, education officials and proponents of the law say its significance is in the strides it makes toward ensuring equity and enhancing diversity.

And it’s a huge deal for students such as Jenna Whiteplum, who was watching the progress of the legislation as she finished her senior year at Lander Valley High School in Wyoming and chose where to enroll as a college freshman.

“I was thinking about going to the University of Wyoming for two years to save money and then transferring,” she said from her dorm room at the University of Colorado in Boulder. “This really helped me be able to go here from the first year. CU was my first choice.”

Her dad alerted her to Colorado’s move toward offering in-state tuition to Native American students, and she followed the action of Senate Bill 29 as it sailed to approval. Her high school counselor helped her figure out what financial aid she might be eligible for, and she called the registrar’s office at CU to ensure she’d get information about everything available to her.

She didn’t wait for anyone to reach out to her. 

Colorado State University’s Native American Cultural Center provides tutoring, mentoring, leadership development, and other resources for students. (Photo provided by Colorado State University)

Whiteplum, 18, is Northern Arapaho and lives about 10 miles from the Wind River Reservation, home to the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes. She said the school is small and college fairs usually involve only Wyoming colleges.

That is likely to change. More than 10% of her school district’s 1,842 students are American Indian or Alaska Native, according to a school report card, making it the kind of place that Colorado colleges and universities are eyeing as they map strategies to recruit Native American students. (Another 7.5% identify as two or more races, a group that also likely includes Indigenous students.)

“Most likely students coming from bordering states will be taking advantage of this the most,” said Carl Einhaus, senior director of student success at the Colorado Department of Higher Education.

They’re more likely to hear about Colorado’s tuition deal and its schools, and most students choose colleges that aren’t too far from home. Plus, Colorado may be on their radar because it already had two schools with tuition assistance for Native American students.

Leading the way

A handful of states and colleges offer tuition waivers, in-state tuition or other grants and scholarships to increase access to higher education for Native American students. The rules vary, requiring such things as tribal membership or documentation of tribal descent. 

But the goal is the same: increase the number of Native American students who attend – and are successful – in college.

CU Regent Lesley Smith said she met with Native American students a couple of years ago to talk about what the college could do to enroll more Indigenous students and two things resulted: the regents approved a land acknowledgement and worked on the in-state tuition bill. 

“We wanted to give them the opportunity to attend a four-year institution where their tribal lands were and remedy some of the historic barriers to education,” she said. “The students were asking for it and we listened to the students.”

Statistics from 2019 show that 25% of Native Americans over the age of 25 had at least a two-year degree compared with 42% of the overall population over the age of 25, according to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute.

In Colorado, the number of Native American students in 2- and 4-year colleges steadily declined to 2,356 in 2019 from 3,013 in 2010. Native American students accounted for 0.89% of the total college population in 2019, down from 1.2% in 2010, according to CDHE statistics. 

Students at Fort Lewis College in Durango accounted for more than half the Native American students enrolled in all Colorado colleges in 2019. 

The Dale Rea Memorial Clock Tower on the Fort Lewis College campus in Durango. Controversial interpretive signs inside the tower memorialize the history of the school’s first campus, in Hesperus, as an Indian School. (Steve Peterson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The southern Colorado campus has always had free tuition for Native American students because of the agreement struck in 1911 when the federal government gave land near Hesperus to the state. 

The deed required that land to be used for an educational institution and that it was “to be maintained as an institution of learning to which Indian students will be admitted free of tuition and on an equality with white students” in perpetuity, according to the college website.

Today, nearly 1,400 of Fort Lewis College’s more than 3,300 students are Native American (about 41%). College spokeswoman Lauren Savage said 185 tribes and Alaskan villages are represented among the students.

In 2011, Colorado State University in Fort Collins began offering in-state tuition to students from any of the 48 tribes associated with the state under its Native American Legacy Award Scholarship. It broadened that opportunity last year to students from all federally recognized tribes.

Leslie Taylor, vice president for enrollment and access at Colorado State University, said the numbers can be difficult to track, but CSU had 990 students in fall 2020 who identified as Native American.

Now, she said, any of those students who are connected to one of the 48 tribes included in the new state law are eligible for the stipend from the Colorado Opportunity Fund available to all Colorado students. 

Taylor said the additional financial support from the COF and other state scholarships and grants should help with retention.   

“Even with in-state tuition it’s (financially) challenging for middle- and lower-income students to be able to stay and graduate,” she said.

Colorado State University’s Native American Cultural Center provides tutoring, mentoring, leadership development, and other events and resources for students. (Photo provided by Colorado State University)

Beyond the money

Financial support, though, is only one part of helping students succeed.

What type of support services colleges offer will be just as important to the success in increasing the number of Indigenous students as the financial assistance, Einhaus said.

“Some colleges do a good job overall with equity, whether it’s students of color, low income, first generation, increasing staff diversity – generally providing a campus climate that is welcoming,” he said.

It’s not easy work, he said, which is why CDHE recently hired a chief equity officer to help guide the work and ensure that successful programs are replicated on other campuses.

CU also just hired a vice chancellor for diversity, equity and inclusion to help improve the Boulder campus culture.

All the state’s colleges and universities supported the Native American in-state tuition legislation and there have been plenty of informal exchanges about recruitment, wrap-around services for students, and retention. 

Ty Smith, Director of the Native American Cultural Center at Colorado State University, poses for a portrait on the Fort Collin campus. “We’re continually working on our retention program from the office, like tutoring, mentoring and leadership development,” Smith said. “In the big picture, there’s so much more than financial aid for Native students, like making sure students are welcome here and they have a sense of belonging.” (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

“In my office we are really focused on retention,” said Ty Smith, director of CSU’s Native American Cultural Center. “We have peer mentoring, tutoring, leadership development, and work on raising cultural awareness on campus and in the community.”

He noted that many of those efforts start with outreach to public school students, such as a visiting science program they’ve taken to K-12 schools in South Dakota and the Four Corners, workshops in Denver-area schools and an annual Native American STEM institute.

Building an inclusive campus community is work that is never finished, said Tom Stritikus, president of Fort Lewis College. He noted that work includes building social and cultural supports, but also must be integrated into the curriculum.

For example, faculty in the Native American Studies Department a couple of years ago began considering the impact of American Indian boarding schools because there was one on the college’s first campus in Hesperus. Fort Lewis’ main campus is in Durango, but it still owns the Hesperus land, which it uses for a variety of agricultural programs.

Before the pandemic, the college had listening sessions about the boarding schools, so the entire community could learn the history.

As Fort Lewis developed an interdisciplinary curriculum surrounding the issue it burst into the international spotlight when hundreds of unmarked graves were discovered on the sites of Indian boarding schools in Canada. A process of repatriating the remains of students who died at the Carlisle Indian Boarding School in Pennsylvania has been ongoing for several years.

Stritikus said Fort Lewis officials will confer with the tribal nations whose ancestors attended the school in Hesperus and decide on the most respectful way to proceed if there is to be a search for possible graves. “We won’t hide from any questions,” he said.

And development of the curriculum continues. Stritikus also created a president’s tribal advisory council to discuss matters of importance to tribes.

“We’ve been engaged in this work – none of this postdates the bill,” he said. “Fort Lewis was supportive of the bill from the beginning, but success has everything to do with what happens on the campus.

“It’s an important bill but we need to continue to remember what led to (Fort Lewis’) Native tuition waiver – the removal of Utes from the Western Slope.”

Sue McMillin is a longtime Colorado editor and reporter currently based in Cañon City.