Mesa Community College
Mesa Community College is one of the 10 community colleges in the Maricopa County Community College District in Arizona. The college has two campuses and five affiliate locations, and it offers more than 200 programs, degrees, and certificates. MCC serves more than 40,000 students each year.

4 Challenges Facing Native Students Today

Tanya H. Lee
8/27/14

American Indian college students heading back to school this fall face tough challenges. Some are common to all college students and some are unique to Native students. Many American Indian students begin their post-secondary education at a tribal or a community college, so this discussion focuses primarily on those institutions.

Finances

Finding the money to pay for college is at the top of almost everyone’s list. Financing can be especially challenging for American Indian students who have grown up and lived in poverty, says Carrie Billy, Navajo, president and CEO of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.

“The average income for a tribal college student is $15,262/year. The average tuition at a tribal college is less than $3,000 a year, but the average cost of attending the college, including housing, transportation, food and other expenses is $13,800.” Eighty percent of tribal college students get federal financial aid, mostly in the form of Pell grants, but, says Billy, the maximum Pell grant this year is only $5,645.

“The federal government should make a commitment to the lowest-income families in this county to increase the maximum Pell grant. This would be a tremendous help to getting more American Indians through college. When our students are fully funded for their education, they will complete a two-year degree in two years and a four-year degree in four years.”

Just a few tribal colleges participate in the federal student loan program, says Billy, “because loan repayment and the default rate policies of the federal government are so harsh.” Some get scholarship funding through their tribes or through the Bureau of Indian Education, but many students still come up short.

Students at community colleges are generally eligible for federal student loans, but as Billy points out, without a national income-based repayment plan, paying those loans will be extremely difficult for people who live in low-income communities with low-paying jobs.

Students testing water quality at Oglala Lakota College. (Jason Tinant)

Poor Communication Between Tribes and Colleges

Alberto Olivas, Mexica (Aztec)/Huichol, director of the Center for Civic Participation at Maricopa Community Colleges, explains that each tribe has a different policy for funding scholarships and each college or university has its own payment schedule. There is often a breakdown in communication between tribes and financial aid offices, which can result in delayed financial aid checks. “Students need to get their money on time to buy books, secure housing and pay their tuition so they won’t be dropped from courses for non-payment,” he says.

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