State will pay cost of college for Oregon tribal members going to school in-state

Instead of taking classes for her computer science degree this spring, No’alani Malumaleumu spent 60 hours a week split between two jobs. In the mornings, she helped people with their IT questions for Cayuse Technologies, a tribally-owned company in her hometown of Pendleton. For the rest of the day, she worked at McDonalds.

Malumaleumu, 20, enrolled in the Oregon Institute of Technology last fall to pursue a degree in the tech field she discovered a passion for while working at Cayuse. But after two terms, her costs were starting to mount: Even with financial aid, Malumaleumu owed the school a few thousand dollars each term, and moving out of her parents’ house came with new expenses. She decided to take a break from school to pay off her debts, before racking up more.

When she heads back to school in the fall, however, Malumaleumu’s financial situation could get easier: As an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, she qualifies for a grant that will cover most or all higher education costs for students who belong to any of Oregon’s nine federally recognized tribes in 2022-23.

She put in her application last week.

“It’s definitely a big relief. It’s exciting to talk about, even just to think about,” Malumaleumu said.

She is one of around 700 tribal members in Oregon expected to take part in what could be the nation’s most ambitious program aimed at reducing financial barriers that contribute to low college attendance and completion rates among Native American students. But so far, lawmakers have funded it only for the next academic year – something backers of the program hope the Legislature will extend in 2023.

The Legislature funded the Oregon Tribal Student Grant program to the tune of $19 million for 2022-23. Maximum grants will cover the average cost of attendance – including tuition, books, housing and more – for tribal members who attend an in-state community college or university.

More than 400 people have started grant applications so far, said Endi Hartigan, communications director for the state Higher Education Coordinating Commission.

Students seeking the grant will have to submit a Federal Application For Student Aid, or an Oregon Student Aid Application, along with submitting a grant application.. The tribal student grant will help cover the difference between state or federal aid a student receives, and the average cost of attendance at their in-state school.

That can be a big gap. In 2021-22, the maximum federal pell grant was around $6,500, and the maximum Oregon Opportunity Grant was around $3,600. The average cost of attending an Oregon school, in comparison, was around $21,000 for community college and $28,000 at a public university.

“This is a huge opportunity for our tribal members to essentially gain access to higher education where there’s a possibility that they would not go if they did not have access to this grant,” said Modesta Minthorn, education director for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

The percentage of Oregon’s Native American students attending college after high school has declined in recent years. According to a 2021 commission report, only 48% of Oregon’s Native American high school graduates enrolled in college within 16 months of high school, compared to 61% of students overall.

College completion rates point to another disparity. About 52% of Native American students in Oregon’s public universities finish their degrees within six years, compared to 67% of all students.

“(Oregon’s) program, I would think, would be a huge positive in terms of graduating from college,” said Dina Horwedel with the American Indian College Fund.

“The money, the financial access is fantastic — but then of course there are also student supports that people need once they’re in school,” Horwedel added. “This is a great first step.”

The grant is expected to pay for most or all costs for undergraduate students at a public school. Students attending private non-profit schools in Oregon, and graduate programs can apply as well – though the grant would be capped at the maximum cost of attendance at a public university.

Tribes are encouraging their older adult members who have completed some college but are short of finishing their degree, to take advantage of the funding to go back to school.

“It’ll help our communities in the long run,” said Valerie Switzler, general manager for education with the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.

Several states offer financial aid or tuition waivers for Native American students, according to research that the Education Commission of the States provided to Oregon’s higher education commission. But Oregon has yet to find another example of a state offering grants that go beyond tuition, all the way up to the cost of attendance at an in-state school, Hartigan said.

Only members of Oregon’s nine tribes – including the Burns Paiute Tribe, Klamath Tribes, Coquille Indian Tribe and others – will be covered. That is only a subset of the roughly 2,000 Oregon community college and university students who identified as Native American and Alaska Native in 2020-21, according to the Higher Education Coordinating Commission, since that count includes students from out-of-state tribes.

At last count, Oregon’s federally recognized tribes reported more than 29,000 members, according to the state’s Legislative Commission on Indian Services.

While the grant has only been funded for one year so far, Hartigan said she expects the higher education commission will put extending the program high on its list of budget requests to the 2023 Legislature.

Sandy Henry, education director for the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians, worries that a one-time grant could leave students hanging.

“It does open up the door to an opportunity, and gets students started on a degree and all of the sudden it could be gone,” Henry said. “I’m concerned that perhaps we’ve started people on the road to success and kind of said ‘Huh, nevermind.’”

Alyssa Rainville, a junior at Western Oregon University, hopes the Oregon Tribal Student Grant will help pay for her senior year of college, giving her time to focus on her next steps.Courtesy of Alyssa Rainville

Even one year’s worth of funding could be a help for the Rainville sisters of the Cow Creek tribe.

Alyssa Rainville, a junior at Western Oregon University, said getting the grant for her senior year would allow her to focus not only on classes, but getting her resume ready and applying for jobs after graduation. Her sister, Aubrey, is hoping the grant can help pay for her first year at Western Oregon, including the more than $10,000 price tag of mandatory on-campus housing for freshmen.

“It’s huge just for the community of Native American kids that we’re being seen, and it’s giving us the opportunity to get higher education and set us up for success,” Aubrey Rainville said. “I hope (the grant) is something that’s continuous – if not, I am grateful that it’s here this year.”

The priority application deadline for the grant funding is Aug. 1. If there’s extra funding after the first round of awards, the commission may accept additional applicants for winter and spring terms.

Malumaleumu originally planned to spend her first few years at Oregon Tech – which is based in Klamath Falls – working from Pendleton while she saves. With the grant money, she might be able to afford to move for in-person classes sooner rather than later.

“I cannot wait to start school again,” she said.

For more details about grant funding and eligibility, visit OregonStudentAid.gov.

— Sami Edge

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