New program will pay for Indigenous students’ higher education
MSU Denver grant to cover 100% of tuition and fees for eligible participants who are Colorado residents and enrolled with federally recognized nations.
Thanks to a combination of federal, state and institutional grants, Metropolitan State University of Denver will ensure that the cost of Indigenous students’ tuition and fees will be fully covered, beginning in the fall semester.
Eligible students must be Colorado residents enrolled with one of the 574 federally recognized nations and must register for at least one credit toward a badge, certificate or first bachelor’s degree up to 125 credits. The program will cover tuition and mandatory fees for eligible students whose costs aren’t covered by other federal or state grants.
This effort builds upon a legislative bill passed last year requiring state higher-education institutions to offer an in-state tuition classification to Native students who are members of Indigenous nations with historical ties to Colorado.
“I’m really excited — it’s an opportunity for me, my siblings and other family members that hadn’t existed before,” said Kyla Aguirre, an MSU Denver Political Science junior with a minor in Sustainability Studies and a member of the Chickasaw Nation.
The grant follows the University’s previous efforts to expand access for underserved populations, said Will Simpkins, Ed.D., vice president of Student Affairs, and is part of a mission-driven effort to offset “the almost 400-year history of an American higher-education system built to serve the privileged few.”
It’s a long-tailed legacy to unravel. As reported by the American Indian Graduate Center, 14.5% of the American Indian and Alaska Native population has completed a bachelor’s degree or higher (compared with 31.3% of the overall population). Additionally, the national six-year graduation rates among those enrolled are 41% vs. 62%, respectively.
“Like our Roadrunner Promise program, Displaced Aurarians scholarship (now poised for funding in perpetuity with help from HB22-1393) and longstanding advocacy for Dreamer students, this is a way of providing critical financial opportunities to students we know benefit from the MSU Denver experience,” Simpkins said.
“It’s an important first step,” he said, “and one we’re committed to for our individuals, families and communities.”
To move this commitment forward, the University is working with Indigenous leaders, including a recent Auraria Campus meeting with elders from the Cheyenne and Arapaho nations, along with other internal and external communities, Simpkins added.
Similar programs exist at institutions such as Fort Lewis College and the University of Minnesota-Morris but are rare in their widespread scope and support, said David Heska Wanbli Weiden, Ph.D., a professor of Political Science at MSU Denver.
“This is long overdue — it’s time for the State of Colorado and MSU Denver to honor the obligations to Indigenous people whose land we are living on,” he said.
Weiden, a member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation who leads the University’s Native American Studies program, underscored the importance of education to improve socioeconomic mobility, along with “opening up worlds of literature, music, science and more.”
And as 72% of Indigenous people live in urban or suburban areas, MSU Denver has a unique opportunity and responsibility to further support this student population.
“Many students coming to us from their reservations often feel ostracized, so it’s important to find that space of belonging,” Weiden said. “My hope is to continue building on the work we’re doing to attract many more students to have that critical mass, along with more professors and expanded clubs and scholarships.”
Aguirre emphasized the importance of community-building, noting that she didn’t receive support after graduating from high school in Oklahoma and attending one of the state’s flagship institutions before leaving for medical reasons.
She was drawn to MSU Denver in 2018 and is now vice president of MSU Denver’s Native and Indigenous Student Alliance, which is involved in organizing the Auraria Campus’ tri-institutional powwow to bring awareness to Indigenous culture, education and inclusion.
“The community here is very accepting and supportive in trying to help Indigenous students,” she said.
The University’s grant program is a step in the right direction to reconcile a colonial past of brutalization and forced displacement, said Darius Smith, director of the City of Denver’s Anti-Discrimination Office and staff liaison for the Denver American Indian Commission.
“What MSU Denver’s doing is very forward-thinking and really puts action to words,” said Smith, a member of the Navajo Nation. “A Land Acknowledgment observes the past, but something like this recognizes the current reality and is an investment in the future.”
Smith, a former college track participant, also noted the importance of access to a well-rounded educational experience including sports, having introduced Roadrunner alumnus Charlie Blueback for the 2017 MSU Denver Athletics Hall of Fame.
“Being able to further open that top-notch college experience to Indigenous students is huge. Kudos to that,” he said.
For full grant details, visit the Financial Aid website.
Aguirre’s plans include attending law school and returning to the Chickasaw Nation to advocate for environmental issues and give back to her home community. And though her initial steps were fraught, she’s reassured that the ones to follow are leading to someplace greater.
“My previous experience (with college) hadn’t been that great for different multicultural groups,” she said. “But I came here with hope and have been pleasantly surprised there’s actually follow-through in supporting communities like mine.
“It’s been a journey, and I’m glad to be at MSU Denver.”
Aug. 22, 2022: This story has been edited to add additional information about how the program fully covers tuition and fees.