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Tribal members continue to push for UW tuition waivers for Native students

A brick sign with the words “University of Wyoming,” with tall trees and a brick building in the background.
Ted Brummond
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University of Wyoming Photo Service
Campus in the fall, 2012

Land-grant universities, like the University of Wyoming (UW), largely got their start on land taken from Native peoples – and many of these schools continue to benefit from those lands today. Recently, some have started free tuition waivers for Native students as a way to acknowledge this history.

Wyoming Public Radio’s News Director Kamila Kudelska sat down with reporter Hannah Habermann to talk about recent efforts from members of the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes to do the same thing at UW.

Editor's Note: This story has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Kamila Kudelska: The idea of tuition waivers came up in front of lawmakers at the most recent Select Committee on Tribal Relations meeting in Fort Washakie earlier this month. What was brought up?

Hannah Habermann: Right now, the University of Wyoming does not currently offer a tuition waiver for Native students. At this most recent meeting, Eastern Shoshone tribal member James Trosper said the request isn’t a new ask.

Both business councils have expressed interest for many years in the possibility of a tuition waiver for Native American students at UW to alleviate at least partly the financial burdens faced by the students, which in some cases can prevent them from pursuing higher education,” he said.

Two men sit behind mics. More men sit in chairs behind them.
Wyoming Legislature
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Eastern Shoshone tribal member James Trosper (left) speaks to the Select Committee on Tribal Relations at a meeting in Fort Washakie on May 2, 2024.

The tribes have tried to bring this up before – in 2018 with the University of Wyoming’s Board of Trustees, to Board of Trustee members again in January this year, and now in front of lawmakers. And for the most part, it seems like there’s confusion about who can even make it happen.

KK: Let’s back up a step – why do tribal members say waivers for Native students are necessary? What’s the basis for this ask?

HH: This actually goes back to the mid 1800s, when Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act. It took land that had been recently taken from tribes for very little to no money, then divided that land up and gave it to institutions like universities, to sell or make money off to get started. As you said at the top, those are land grant universities – and UW is one.

But these universities continue to profit from stolen Native land in the form of leasing state-trust lands, for things like grazing or oil and gas development.

Earlier this year, I interviewed two of the folks at the media outlet Grist who looked into this topic through their “Misplaced Trust” series. In that conversation, editor-at-large Tristan Ahtone said the University of Wyoming continues to get a lot back from these lands.

Our data shows that the University of Wyoming benefits from combined about 223,000 acres. We have established that that land was taken from about 22 different Indigenous nations. Between fiscal year 2018 and 2022, Wyoming made about $5.4 million off of those lands,” he said.

KK: How are land-grant universities responding? Are they acknowledging this history or taking any sort of tangible action?

HH: Some land-grant universities have offered waivers for Native students for decades. But in the past few years, there’s been more and more reporting on it, and as this data about land-grant universities has gained traction, it’s raised questions about whether these universities have any sort of obligation to give back to Native residents or Native students.

KK: You mentioned some universities offer waivers already – where and how has it worked?

HH: In the last few years, big schools like the University of California system and the University of Arizona made headlines when they launched these tuition waiver programs. A lot of these schools often have stipulations about being part of a federally recognized tribe or living in-state.

But, some places have been doing this for a long time. I was really surprised to find this out, but the University of Maine has had a tuition waiver since the 1930s, and public colleges in Montana have been doing it since the 1970s.

KK: Bring us back to what’s happening now in Wyoming. What else happened at that recent Select Committee on Tribal Relations meeting?

HH: Trosper was joined by Northern Arapaho tribal member Alyson White Eagle. She’s currently a student at the University of Wyoming College of Law. She said that in 2018, representatives from both tribes approached the UW Board of Trustees to ask for a waiver, but the board wanted to know more.

“They wanted information on things like retention rates of Native students, graduation rates of Native students, what was the cost? What was the cost of a tuition waiver, going to look like for the university,” she said.

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Wyoming Legislature
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Northern Arapaho tribal member Alyson White Eagle presents her research on Native student graduation rates, retention, and funding opportunities to the Select Committee on Tribal Relations at a meeting in Fort Washakie on May 2, 2024.

White Eagle did some research over the last year to try and answer those questions. She found that less than 1 percent of students at UW reported to be Native American or Alaskan Native – that’s definitely less than the 4 percent of the state population that has some sort of tribal affiliation.

Editor’s Note: According to data shared by University of Wyoming representatives at the same Select Committee on Tribal Relations meeting, 69 students identified only as Native American or Alaskan Native, with an additional 238 students identifying as Native American or Alaskan Native, as well as other races. Total enrollment as of fall 2023 was 10,913. So, students who identify only as Native American or Alaskan Native make up .6 percent of the school’s population, while the total amount of students who identify as Native American or Alaskan Native make up 2.8 percent of the school’s population.

According to White Eagle’s research, retention and graduation rates have remained consistently low in recent years – but because there are relatively few Native American students, rates fluctuate a lot from year to year.

KK: What kinds of funding sources already exist for students who are tribal members – did White Eagle talk about that?

HH: Well, she talked about the state-funded Hathaway Scholarship, which provides a full-ride for both Native and non-Native students. But not everyone qualifies – there’s an ACT standardized test threshold you have to meet, and some other academic and financial requirements.

White Eagle said there are 15 scholarships at UW designated exclusively for Native students. The main three are the Chief Washakie Memorial Endowment, the Northern Arapaho Endowment, and the Northern Arapaho Sky People Endowment. These are primarily funded directly by the tribes. But according to White Eagle, these scholarships don’t cover everyone.

“What we found was that the amount of applicants far exceeded the availability of scholarship monies. There are more applicants to the scholarship than what was available, so a lot of students missed out,” she said.

She also added that, according to UW’s Office of Financial Aid, for Native students who did receive scholarships, less than half of their need was met during the 2023-2024 academic year.

KK: What was the response from the committee members at the meeting?

HH: That brings us back to the main question – how would it work and who would make it happen? Navajo Sen. Affie Ellis (R-Cheyenne) asked for clarity about whether UW had been looking into the idea since the tribes’ request to the Board of Trustees in 2018.

“I'm getting caught a little flat footed, there's a lot of things I think that were happening and conversations happening I'm unaware of,” she said.

University of Wyoming Executive Vice President Kevin Carmen said he believed the board’s lack of action meant that they thought the waiver would be better pursued through the legislature. So, right now it sounds like everyone is trying to get on the same page.

KK: Seems like a lot of confusion around who could actually make this happen. Was there any decision on what next steps might look like?

HH: I’d say there was one main next step, which was to get more information. In particular, Sen. Ellis wanted to know more about how other universities fund their tuition waivers – is it through university endowments? Is it set-up by the legislature?

The committee didn’t endorse a free tuition waiver, but they did unanimously vote to send the committee’s two co-chairs, Sen. Ellis and Sen. Oakley, to the next UW Board of Trustees meeting scheduled for June 12th.

KK: So, the next step is connecting lawmakers with the university’s trustees. Anything else to share on this topic?

HH: Last summer, the Northern Arapaho Tribe and the University of Colorado-Denver created a $50,000 scholarship for Northern Arapaho students, in recognition of the fact that that area is part of the tribe’s ancestral homelands.

It’ll be available to undergrad students who are members of the Northern Arapaho Tribe starting this summer. So, I guess it’s just interesting to see what other schools are doing to support Native students moving forward.

Hannah Habermann is the rural and tribal reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She has a degree in Environmental Studies and Non-Fiction Writing from Middlebury College and was the co-creator of the podcast Yonder Lies: Unpacking the Myths of Jackson Hole. Hannah also received the Pattie Layser Greater Yellowstone Creative Writing & Journalism Fellowship from the Wyoming Arts Council in 2021 and has taught backpacking and climbing courses throughout the West.
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