Too Many Scholarships, Not Enough Native Students Applying

Dr. Dean Chavers

In talking to my friend Al Paulson recently, it turned out we have a common problem. We can’t give away scholarships. What a shame.

In the modern age of computers, scholarships are everywhere, it seems. FastWeb, the most popular scholarship site, has over 1.5 million entries in its database. Other websites such as have similar numbers. But it’s hard to give them away, let me tell you. I have been doing it for 42 years, and we never have enough applicants.

Al Paulsen who lives in St. Paul, Minnesota founded Marketplace Productions 20 years ago. After he had some success in business, he and other members of the Minnesota American Indian Chamber of Commerce decided to launch an Indian scholarship program. But for almost a decade now, he has had trouble getting Native American students to apply for it.

Paulsen has worked with casinos and business development on Indian reservations for over 30 years now. His mother was a LaDuke from White Earth before she married his father Albin Paulsen. So Al is a first cousin of the famous Indian activist Winona LaDuke. He says his mother got hooked on his father because he was a member of a band that played in the local area.

They lived north of White Earth and farmed for a few years, and then moved to the Twin Cities. Albin got a job in the Ford plant and worked there until he retired. Al got a job at Ford after he finished high school, but the hard work convinced him he needed to go to college. He became one of the early White Earth citizens to finish college.

He picked St. Cloud State University (SCSU) because they had a great hockey team and he wanted to play. The Minnesota Chippewa Tribe (MCT) gave him a scholarship; without it, he says, he would not have been able to go to college. “Without that grant,” he told me, “I don’t know if I could have afforded to complete my college degree.” He finished in 1966, and is now in the SCSU Hall of Fame as a hockey player.

He was the first LaDuke to finish college, and Winona was the second. “By the end of my sophomore year,” he said, “I realized that education was a great equalizer, so I got serious about college and graduated in four and a half years.” He made the varsity hockey team as a freshman, and is still the only Indian ever to play hockey for St. Cloud State.

He paid for his first year himself, from work at Ford and from a rice business he had set up. But the scholarship from MCT paid his tuition for the rest of his college.

Al is also an enthusiastic volunteer, and has been for 20 years. “I am an instructor at Indian schools for Junior Achievement as my way of paying back for what the tribe did for me in paying for my tuition and books and assisting me in getting my college degree,” he told me. “I am also on the Diversity Council for MNSCU, the Minnesota State College and University board, overseeing 42 state colleges and tech colleges in Minnesota.”

“We talk a lot about retention rates and graduation rates, comparing all ethnic minorities with all the others and the caucasian student rates. There is a big difference in rates, with white students and Asian students having the best rates…and us Indians having the lowest rates. From our state, it appears the rates for Indian students are improving.”

The Indian Chamber, which he chaired for awhile, set up a scholarship fund several years ago to give two scholarships of $1,500 each to two students. They wanted to give them to students with business majors, but got so few applicants that they opened it to students with any major. And they still get only a handful of applicants.

I told him about some of my experiences trying to get Indian students to apply for scholarships. I was in Holbrook, Arizona 10 years ago to try to recruit Indian students for our scholarship.

We encourage students to apply not only for ours, but for every scholarship they can find. These days, that is 40 or more. We had a student from Laguna Pueblo four years ago, Isaiah Rodriguez, who found 102 scholarships—which is still our highest total. We have been going since 1986. The national record is still 200, which a black girl from Macon, Georgia accomplished in 1991. Her name is Marianne (Angel) Ragins, and she is now “Miss Scholarship.” She has written three books about how to win scholarships. Our reservation school libraries do not have these books.

As I talked to the students at Holbrook, I told them they should find all the local scholarships as well, such as Lions, Elks, Rotary, Moose, and so on. The counselor at Holbrook High School, Dean McNamee, whose daughter is one of our grads, piped up and said, “Yes, the Elks had four scholarships last year, and no one applied for them.”

That makes me sad. I hate to see any scholarship not be awarded. I know there is a student somewhere, maybe an Indian student, who could use that scholarship.

For four straight years, I visited one high school on the Navajo reservation to recruit students. But one day my assistant asked me why I was going there. “How many applicants have we gotten from there?” she asked.

I had to admit, “None.” She said, “Why are you going there every year?” I haven’t been back. But old hard headed here will probably go back this year. We have to talk to 100 students to get two to apply.

I know the high schools are not preparing Indian students for college. In a research project I did 15 years ago, fewer than 10 percent of Indian students had taken the courses in high school they needed to be ready for college.

Fewer than 10 percent had taken four years of English. Fewer than 10 percent had taken four years of science. Fewer than 10 percent had taken four years of math, including Algebra I, Algebra II, Geometry, and Trigonometry. Fewer than 5 percent had taken Calculus. If they go to college, they are going to have to take remedial classes, which is a real let down to the Indian valedictorian who was the BMOC (Big Man on Campus) in high school. Some of them never get over the humiliation. Is it any wonder that our dropout rate for Indian college students is over 80 percent?

High school preparation for college is an excellent research project for a graduate student, by the way. I just finished reviewing dozens of articles and books for my next book, and there is very little research on the high school preparation of Indian students for college. The little that is there is surprising, sometimes. For instance, traditionalism has little to do with college success, according to one article. Another article reports that high GPA students drop out about as often as low GPA students, which is frustrating.

In the research I did, the average number of scholarships Indian students applied for was one. That is, most Indian students did not apply for any scholarships; they rely totally on federal financial aid. Then every twentieth student applied for 10 or 20 scholarships, bringing the average up to one.

Granted the scholarship application process is a little difficult. You should know what you are going to major in, and what you are going to do after graduation. But the rewards are huge. I tell students they should win all the scholarships they can, and if they have more than they need for college, they should give their momma money. And I mean it. Few students do that, but they should. And they can start their retirement with it if they want to.

There is a national scholarship group that was formed 15 years ago. It is an association of college and private scholarship people. I went to the first or second meeting, and several people told me they wanted to get applications from Indian students. “We never get an application from an Indian student,” they told me.

God bless Al Paulsen and the other people who are trying to run scholarship programs. Don’t give up, boys and girls. We need to develop all the talent we can in Indian country.

Dr. Dean Chavers is director of Catching the Dream. Founded in 1986, CTD awards scholarships to high potential Indian college students. It also works to improve Indian schools. His next book will be called “The American Indian Dropout.” It will be published in early 2013. He has written books on Indian leaders, racism in Indian country, exemplary Indian schools, and how to write winning proposals in the past 40 years.

Related articles:

Laguna Student Sets Indian Country Scholarship Record

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deidraatkins's picture
Submitted by deidraatkins on
If these scholarships were known, and students were informed about the advantages maybe more would apply. This article makes out that most Native youth are "lazy" and "unmotivated" which could be for some but not all. I am going to a community college and have only known about 1 native-scholarship by my tribe. I've searched many times for native benefited scholarships and found few for tribal colleges. But nonetheless this article promotes that Native youth should take advantage of scholarships that is given to us, which I support.

ptkkmmm's picture
Submitted by ptkkmmm on
I wonder if any tribes will consider paying off student loans of those of us Indians who went to college before all these scholarships existed, and are working in Indian Country. It sure would help us.

catburton's picture
Submitted by catburton on
Perhaps, CTD should consider changing the degree of blood requirement. I am not able to prove 1/4 degree Indian Blood. However, I am a voting member of the Osage & I would gladly apply for this scholarship in order to complete my degree.

casper13's picture
Submitted by casper13 on
How do we apply for these scholarships? When my kids were in high school I went to their guidance counselor for help in finding scholarships. I went to the Title VII office too. The guidance counselor said, "your kind must have some", he looked in a book and said "I guess not". The lady at the Title VII office for years, offered help. It seemed every time she set up a date, she was out or in a meeting. I gave up. I looked and looked online. Most web sites want you to enter "information" and then I get bombarded with phone calls about going back to school. I have two boys who are taking a break from college. Why? I can no longer afford to send them to school. Our mortgage and credit card (which is how I paid for couple times) is priority. Please let me know. Thank you. Michelle

hesutu's picture
Submitted by hesutu on
Back when I went to college I had a similar experience to what you describe. I was trying to figure out the scholarship thing and went to the scholarship office. I was told simply to look in the various lists of scholarships they had in large books of scholarships. There were scholarships available only to children of employees of certain credit union or factories, scholarships available to confederate war veteran descendants, all sorts, tens of thousands. I was curious about indian scholarships and asked my appointed counselor about this, he was quite unfriendly said he didn't know of any. I knew that could not be true, for he was a Luiseño indian and would surely have been familiar with something. But that was not my tribe you see and the fact is that we are not really united, there is not really pan-tribal indian unity. For most tribes the rule is look out for your own and who can blame us. I spend around a hundred hours complying with requirements for various scholarships and applied to a couple dozen. Most required essays, long forms, certified copies of transcripts, (which each cost me money to get, it seems that a photocopy is seldom sufficient) and letters of recommendation from friends tailored to the specific scholarship. As many people that were willing to write recommendations, it was too much to ask so many to write individual letters. In the end I received a few $50 and $100 scholarships. There was one $500 one but it required that I travel across the state and give a speech to a club. Without doing so, I could not collect it. If I had spent the 100 hours continuing to work the near-minimum wage job I had at the time, I would have made about the same amount, but without the stress of running about and paying fees. I worked my way through school and graduated Summa Cum Laude with a degree in electrical engineering. Many of the indian scholarships I did find I wasn't eligible for because they wanted only people who majored in other fields. To this day I ponder whether there are any scholarships for indians interested in math, physics or engineering. To my own children I will give the advice don't even try to get a scholarship. Fortunately with the free online education that has suddenly come out of nowhere lately, it seems that paying huge unaffordable sums for education will soon be a thing of the past.

latoyathomas's picture
Submitted by latoyathomas on
I would love to apply for these scholarships, unfortunately, there are specific guidelines to most scholarships and I had no idea that this one existed. In regards to the Navajo reservation, I think that you should get in touch with schools like Window Rock Highs School, Chinle High School, Shiprock High School and Navajo Pine High School. These small schools may have small numbers, but there are motivated students there, they don't have access to the types of resources that are available to urban students. In case you forgot, most American Indians live in some of the most remote parts of the United States. For most American Indian scholarships, you have to be part of a certain tribe or major in a specific area. Do you suggest applying for these scholarships regardless of the guidelines set forth? If so, then I would most definatley apply for all the scholarships out there. But thank you for brining this to my attention. I'm sure there are literally hundreds of American Indian students in need of scholarships.

sarahblake-grover's picture
Submitted by sarahblake-grover on
I too am having a hard time with scholarships for a few reasons. One, I have my CDIB card (which is a whole other discussion)- but am not quarter blood. Two, I do not live within my Nation, and never have- part of the problem of moving Natives to the cities. Three, my husband makes too much for some scholarships- but I can't afford to go to law school on his income. I have paid through my education mostly out of pocket, and am a non-traditional student. I wish there were "after college" scholarships, or forgiveness programs like those the fed gives to people working in social service type fields.

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
Dean Chavers here: I want to respond to the alleged torrent of responses to my article on scholarships. First, I hate to be misquoted; I never said Indian students were lazy or not motivated. I someone read that, you said it, not I. Second, I don't talk about Indian scholarships; I talk about scholarships, period. There are only 75 Indian scholarships, and only eight of them have real money. In contrast, Fastweb has 1.5 MILLION scholarships in its database. Third, students should use the comprehensive websites, such as Fastweb or It is much too hard to Google "Indian Scholarships" and try to go through three million entries. The Fastweb search will typically give students 125 to 150 scholarships, about 60% of which they are not eligible for. But when they have checked the list over and deleted the ones they are not eligible for, they will have a minimum of 40. That is their pot of gold. Fourth, go to our website, to get instructions and the Essay Outline. Both will help greatly. My e-mail address is [email protected], and I will be glad to help any time. I help students every day with their essays, which is their weakest point. Fifth, please don't tell your children not to apply. They will be missing the opportunity of a lifetime. The hottest field is engineering, and second hottest are medicine and science. Students can get enough scholarship money to attend any college in the U. S., if they have worked hard and gotten the grades. Parents will not have to provide them any money. Sixth, if your CIB shows you with less than quarter blood, you can still use the fact that you are an Indian to help you. Most scholarships are not going to ask you for a CIB. Seventh, most scholarships are based on merit, not need. The fact that you have a high income does not mean you cannot win scholarships; you can.

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
hi my name is rhiannon chavers and i am an american native but here is my problem,both of my parents are native but i do not know my fathers side of the family and where they come from or even what decint they where.i dont even know them and my father has past away.they tell me to take a dna test on both of my parents ha,okay i am a mother of five and can not aford the price of the test.does anybody know how i can work around this i feel completely lost in where i come from and cannot tech my children of their family history which for some reason is an importants to me i cant seem to let it go something keeps pulling me this way like theres something im suposse to find or bring back please can anybody help me

Bernice M. Olivas
Bernice M. Olivas
Submitted by Bernice M. Olivas on
I have some serious problems with this article. The implication here is that the native youth, the high schools and the tribes need work harder to access this glorious pool of education money that is supposedly just waiting for them to ask for it. Gotta call bullshit. That's a band-aid approach to fixing a bullet wound. Yes, there are lots of scholarships out there, however, there are also tons of perfectly valid reasons Native youth can't access them that has nothing to do with their drive, Google skills,or perseverance. First of all nothing about the scholarship process is accessible or transparent. It's a red tape extravaganza, seeped in institutional knowledge. This is just one problem for youth coming from school systems with the lowest paid teachers and counselors and highest rates of turn over in the nation. And let's not fail to account for the fact that most reservations have serious infrastructure issues that make access to reliable internet services a little tricky. Or that urban Native youth are often members of the communities that are deeply poverty stricken. More importantly the writer fails to discuss the the fact that because most of these grants and scholarships to be between 500$ and 1,500$, getting 1 or 2 or even 5, doesn't actually open up access to a higher education for youth who have no way to pay the rest of the tuition. In order for these grants to be of any use a student still needs a solid financial foundation to cover the rest of his costs. Particularly first year students, who, even if they manage to piecemeal together enough of these grants or scholarships to meet a tuition that ranges from 7,500 to 10K+ a semester, often drop out in year two because doing it again and maintaining their GPA proves impossible. For a kid with nothing that 1,500 bucks is a joke. Unless he finds ten or twelve of them, because he can't use it unless he can find enough to pay his whole institution. These smaller grants are, by design, best for students as supplemental money for books or to pay back towards financial aid, not as a means to access an education. I'm not saying this is a bad article, but it is problematic. Yes, there is money-- but no the existence of that money does NOT effectively work against the host of systemic issues that plague a Native students. If these programs really want to do some good for native youth then they will work together and with financial aid to create package scholarships and grants that are expansive enough to actually allow a student to go to school.

Jessica Little Bear Cooper
Jessica Little ...
Submitted by Jessica Little ... on
My daughter was labeled as special needs by MHMRA in Texas so we escaped to the UK in order for her to have a chance at a good education. She finished school with Distinctions and Merits and just this September she started at Canterbury Christ Church University. I don't know how we're going to do it but I am giving it my all and will go into debt in doing this because it is her dream to become a clinical psychologist. Our Native children need to have their dreams and help to make them come true as much as possible. This article hurts so much because although I have tried I've had no success in securing funding for her university expenses. I wish this was the case here and that accessing these scholarship opportunities was much easier. I would welcome any information on whether any of these scholarships would be open to her as an away student.

noisylissa's picture
Submitted by noisylissa on
I agree that the scholarships are not well known. I am currently in college, and was informed by the financial aid office at my school that I received a scholarship from a local nation (I'm a member of a different nation and receive a scholarship from them as well, and also a tribal grant). I had no idea that the local nation offered scholarships, and have been unable to find any further information about it. I didn't apply for it, but received it anyway.

Mystic Harrison
Mystic Harrison
Submitted by Mystic Harrison on
Too many Natives that are full-blooded or nearly so are incapable of even applying for such scholarships because it is made nearly impossible to be registered as Native American. I cannot speak for all states whatsoever, but for my area I know that references, however many generations of people (basically witnesses) need to be documented, documents saying Native American on them, a blood test, and more are all needed to even MAYBE be registered Native American. Personally my entire family has been unable to register. Blood tests show all of us full-blooded, and we know our history and all of the Native blood in our family, but unfortunately due to the times, the area my family lived and the company around them, and some of it out of fear, all documentation that we could have used to prove our blood has been destroyed. Aside from the near impossibilities of being a registered Native unless your family has been for many generations or you were born on the Rez, most of these scholarships are also nearly impossible to apply for, or don't seem fair. Many people very qualified apply for such scholarships and are turned down constantly and consistently. If these scholarships are lacking applicants so, what is happening to cause applicants to be denied in the process, even when qualifications are all met? This is a rant, but I felt it needed to be said.

Elizabeth Winter
Elizabeth Winter
Submitted by Elizabeth Winter on
Whenever I try to apply to native based scholarships, they either do not fit my major, or want enormous amounts of resources for small amounts of funds. I'm an engineering major. Easy right? WRONG! Most native scholarships want business, agriculture, or art. Or they require you to attend a native school. Why is my sustainability focuses major so excluded? Insane. OR: One that I found this very week requires an essay twice as long as most other, along with THREE letters of recommendation from native community leaders (most only require two). Plus, they cannot be related to me. I'm from a very small tribe. They're all related to me some way or another. All this work, again sometimes double that of other scholarships, only gets me $1000 - that's at least half as much for a scholarship that I won't be able to use on room and board. Not worth my time. I've found that so many native scholarships are actually excluding so many natives that I wonder how the fund survives at all. Now I know. They just don't give them out, I guess.