The Payne Family Native American Center was inspired by Plains culture and was designed with sustainability in mind. It is a welcoming place for Native students that also houses the American Indian Student Services office.

University of Montana: A Native-Friendly Higher Learning Institution

Dina Gilio-Whitaker

Deciding where to go to college can be a daunting prospect for anyone. The variables are countless: what to major in; grade point average and SAT/ACT scores; in-state versus out-of-state schools; community college versus university; tuition rates and financial aid; are you a “traditional” student or “non-traditional” student? And that’s just for starters.

For Native students, it can be even more complicated. According to the 2014 Native American Youth Report issued by the White House, Native students have the lowest high school graduation rates of any group in the U.S., at 67 percent. Education Week puts graduation rates for Native students at just 51 percent. The institutional barriers to good education at the K-12 level identified by the White House report range from inadequate conditions in Bureau of Indian Education schools to over-representation of Native children in school disciplinary systems, and much more.

At the college level, the study revealed that only 13 percent of Native students earned a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 29 percent of the general population, and far more Native students dropped out of college (61 percent) than their non-Native counterparts (48 percent). There are many reasons given for these dismal statistics, but the most prominent involve the lack of institutional support for the unique needs of Native students.

It makes sense, then, that when Native students are considering where to go to college they should choose a school where they will not only be able to study their subjects of choice, but also be in an environment that will support them culturally. And that’s just part of the reason why the University of Montana (UM) in Missoula is worth a long look for Native students.

By The Numbers         

Montana is the traditional territory of 12 Native nations and at 6 percent, the state has a higher concentration of American Indian people than most states. According to Forbes, the student body at UM is roughly 3 percent Native. Forbes ranks UM 146th in public colleges, and 176th in research universities. It is a tier two research university, according to the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education (tiers one to three are based on doctoral research activity, determined by factors such as expenditure, number of doctorates awarded, research-focused faculty, etc.).

UM is known to be one of the most affordable universities in the country, with an in-state tuition at $6,389, and out of state fees at $23,845. The average grant aid received is $3,708, and the student to faculty ratio is 18. Around 93 percent of students who apply are admitted, and the student body population is roughly 13,000.

Some of UM’s notable academic programs are wildlife biology, journalism, environmental studies, creative writing, and business administration.

Aside from the academics, the university prides itself on its outdoor-focused lifestyle. Nestled in the heart of the northern Rockies of western Montana, the region offers what the university refers to as some of the world’s best outdoor sporting activities, including hiking, biking, skiing, fishing, and water recreation.

Specifics for Native Students

The 3 percent of the student body who are Native translates to 700 Native students on campus, according to Theo Van Alst, Lakota, co-chair of the Native American Studies department. “Most of the Native undergrad students are in-state Natives,” Van Alst told ICTMN.

“We have about $120,000 in annual graduate and undergraduate funding. Graduate scholarships this year ranged from $1,500 to $15,000 per student. Undergraduate scholarship ranges are $300 to $5,000. Some of the most popular majors for Native American students are business, forestry, natural resources, the law school, and pharmacy school,” Van Alst said.

UM has strong support for Native students in the sciences. For example, the Native American Center of Excellence (NACOE) in the College of Health Professions and Biomedical Science facilitates the identification, recruitment, retention, and professional development of American Indian/Alaska Native students who are interested in pursuing careers in pharmacy and/or health care delivery. And the Indigenous Research and STEM Education Lab serves the advancement of Native American, Alaskan Native, Native Hawaiian and First Nation students in STEM academic disciplines.

One of the crown jewels of the University of Montana campus is the newly built Payne Family Native American Center (NAC for short), with its stunning architectural style inspired by Plains culture. Adding to the buildings’ uniqueness is its LEED Platinum certification. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and means that the building was designed with maximum sustainability in mind, for energy efficiency, and with as little impact on the local environment as possible.

The NAC is a welcoming campus home for Native students. It houses the American Indian Student Services office, a place where American Indian students can access resources from financial aid to mentoring, advocacy, tutoring, and more.

Native American Studies

UM has a Native American studies (NAS) program, which offers both a major and a minor. “One of the things that makes us different is that at University of Montana NAS is not just a program, it’s a full department. There are probably not more than a dozen Native studies departments in the entire country,” Van Alst said. “And we have the second lowest tuition in the country.”

Earlier this year, in fact, UM was named one of the 20 best colleges by Great College Deals for Native American studies, for its affordability and quality education.

A degree in NAS is often not fully appreciated for how it can be applied in the real world as a career. “NAS is an especially valuable major for people who intend to work in Montana or another state or region with a significant American Indian presence,” says a page devoted to career services on the UM website. “Alumni have found their knowledge of Native American issues and communities to be helpful both in finding jobs and in their work… In a state like Montana, which has a high population of Native Americans, it is important for people to have a basic working knowledge of Native American communities.”

In addition to American Indian Student Services, Native American studies also finds its home in the state-of-the-art NAC building.

According to Van Alst, the strengths of Montana’s NAS are its commitments to history, literature and film, and language revitalization and acquisition (which includes newly-approved Blackfeet language courses that can be applied toward the language requirement).

“There is also a GIS lab and planetarium on campus with a screening room. We have a Native star stories show that always sells out,” he said.

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