Scholarships for Native American Students

Learn about Financial Aid, Advocacy Groups and Tribal Colleges

Meet the Expert

Matthew Makomenaw Read bio

Only 17 percent of Native American students enroll in college after high school, while the national average for all students is about 70 percent. Of the Native American students who start college, 82 percent drop out before they finish. This staggering number is mostly due to the lack of academic and financial resources available to many Native American students. Native American students who want to attend college have resources available. This guide provides an overview of the scholarships, grants and potential help available through tribal colleges for Native American students.

Financial Aid for Native American Students

When applying for financial aid, Native American students should complete the following tasks:

Almost all financial aid where the applicant’s Native American status is a primary factor will require proof of heritage. This usually means the student must be an enrolled member of a federally (and sometimes state) recognized Native American Indian tribe or Alaska Native group.

Additionally, the student must have the required percentage or fraction of Native American blood, also known as a “blood quantum.” Typically, this percentage or degree is one fourth. This means at least one of the student’s grandparents must be a full-blooded Native American Indian or Alaska Native.

Students who wish to determine whether they are a member of a federally recognized group can start their search process at the US Department of the Interior’s Trace Indian Ancestry page. But to actually enroll as a member, the student must contact the tribe or group directly, as the specific tribes and groups establish their own enrollment requirements.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), is the form prospective college students and their families must fill out to apply for financial aid from the federal government. Eligibility for loans, grants and work-study programs depend on the completion of the FAFSA.

The purpose of gathering the information requested by the FAFSA is to determine a student’s financial need when paying for college. One way it does this is by calculating a student’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which estimates the student’s financial ability to pay for college.

Even if a student completes the FAFSA and the U.S. Department of Education concludes that the student’s EFC makes the student ineligible for the more generous grants and loans, students should still complete the form. Many schools and states require a completed FAFSA for determining a student’s eligibility for state-based and school-based financial aid.

There are several types of financial aid available to students: grants, scholarships, fellowships, loans and work-study.

Grants, scholarships and fellowships are the most sought-after forms of financial aid because they do not need to be repaid. Depending on the source, the terms are used interchangeably, but they are not the same. Grants are usually awarded based on need. Scholarships and fellowships are typically awarded based on merit, and fellowships often have a work or service component to them.

A loan is borrowed money that must be paid back, usually with interest. Loans can come from private lenders, such as banks, and public lenders, such as the federal government. The federal government offers two types of loans for students: the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program and the Federal Perkins Loan Program. Some loan options are subsidized, which means there is no interest accruing while the student is in school and for the first six months after the student graduates.

Work-study allows students to work in part-time jobs and earn at least federal minimum wage. However, because this is a financial aid award, students may receive higher pay, depending on their particular school’s work-study funding level, when they apply for work-study and the student’s level of financial need.

Even though a Native American student will be eligible for many scholarships and grants that a non-Native American student will not, they should still research and apply for other sources of financial aid. There are thousands of scholarships where the student’s religion, culture, ethnicity or heritage is not an eligibility criterion. And for grants and scholarships that are primarily decided based on the student’s academic performance or extracurricular activities, the student’s status as a Native American will never be a detriment, and might even be an advantage.

Scholarships are a type of financial aid that does not need to be repaid. They are usually granted on the basis of a student’s merit and/or demographic qualities of the student, such as race, ethnicity or religion. Scholarships are offered by almost any entity, from schools to corporations to non-profits.

Grants are similar to scholarships in that they do not need to be repaid. However, unlike scholarships, they are usually granted on the basis of the student’s financial need. They are offered by federal or state governments and the schools themselves.

Fellowships are very similar to scholarships in that a student receives financial support for their academic studies. They are also often awarded on a merit basis. However, unlike scholarships, there is generally a service or work component, requiring the student to spend a certain period of time working or volunteering in a particular field of study or geographical area. Finally, many fellowships are geared toward graduate students.

From the Expert

Matthew Makomenaw, an enrolled member of the Grand Traverse Bay Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians tribes of Michigan, is the College Pathways Administrator for the American Indian College Fund. Prior to his role as College Pathways Administrator, he served as the Faculty Fellowships Program Officer at the American Indian College Fund. He was responsible for recruiting applicants for faculty fellowship programs and managing all aspects of the fellowship selection process. Makomenaw was an assistant professor of Native American Studies. Prior to his position in Montana, he served as the director of the American Indian Resource Center at the University of Utah and as the director of Native American Programs at Central Michigan University. Makomenaw has experience with providing college access and retention for American Indian students in higher education. Makomenaw holds a doctorate degree in higher, adult, and lifelong education from Michigan State University, where he completed his dissertation on the success of tribal college students transferring to four-year predominantly white institutions. Makomenaw’s research focuses on tribal college transfer students, Native American student college choice, and Native American student success factors.

What are the biggest hurdles that are unique to Native American students when trying to get into school?

The national college going rate for students who enroll into college immediately after high school is roughly 69% for all students. For American Indian/Alaskan Native students the rates will vary by state, but tend to be around 41%. There is certainly a college access crisis facing Native students and communities.

Challenges include paying for college, the perception that college is not affordable, and lack of knowledge, resources, and mentors to navigate the hidden rules and complexity of the college admissions process. In addition, staff turnover at reservation-based high schools can make it difficult for Native students to foster meaningful relationships and guidance necessary to apply and choose the best college fit. Many Native students would classify as first generation and by not having that family knowledge about higher education process can make choosing the right college difficult.

The American Indian College Funds Native Pathways to College program is working to provide Native students with knowledge and resources to apply to college and create a college going environment for Native Communities. While the Native Pathways team currently works directly with 30 high schools in 6 states, we also are very active on Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter providing original videos on a variety of college going and college success topics.

What are some of the biggest challenges once these students are in school?

Once on campus, American Indian/Alaskan Native students face a variety of challenges related to connection to Native culture and community. Depending on the student and where they attend college, it may be a difficult challenge attending an institution where there are very few other Native students, faculty, staff, and community. I once had a Native student tell me that seeing another Native student on campus was like winning the lottery.

In addition, non-native faculty/staff may not understand the need to honor Native cultural traditions and miss class for things like ceremonies and family events. Many students I have worked with do not consider the number of American Indian/Alaskan native students, faculty, and staff on campus when selecting a college, but once on campus they realize how important it really is to have a Native community for support. I would advise students to be proactive and seek out the support they need. A challenge for those transiting from high school to college is learning self-advocacy. If there is not a Native student support resource center find a multicultural center, or check to see if there is a nearby community outside the college where Native community members may gather.

Tell me about a few of the programs American Indian College Fund offers, just to provide a sampling of what students can anticipate in terms of financial assistance or aid.

We have two different scholarship programs. The Full Circle Scholarships are for the entire academic year, and the recipients of these scholarships are selected by our team here at the College Fund. We also administer TCU Scholarships. These scholarships are award on a per-semester basis. For this scholarship program, we send money to the TCU financial aid offices. The recipients of these scholarships are selected by the colleges themselves. Generally, the TCU’s have a scholarship committee in place to select these students.

Obviously tribal colleges are incredibly important. Do tribal colleges offer the same or better financial aid options when compared to larger colleges and universities?

Tribal College students have a variety of options available to them when it comes to paying for their education. Along with scholarships from the College Fund, TCUs offer the Federal Pell Grant. Many of our students also receive financial help from their local tribe. Most of the TCUs do not offer student loans. With the other funding that is available, this is actually a good thing for the majority of the students. Completing a college education without putting yourself into debt is a positive. It should also be noted that tribal colleges are by design low tuition institutions so that students can attain a degree without needing to borrow.

What advice would you give Native American students who are just starting out in this journey on how to pay for higher education?

I would advise students to check with their tribal nation to see if they have higher education scholarships. I would have them apply to the American Indian College Funds Full Circle program. In addition, on the American Indian College Funds website they can find additional resources to search for scholarships. I would also advise students to ask college admissions officers about the various scholarships their college may offer for American Indian/Alaskan Native students. The biggest key is to realize there are resources available, but the challenge is to find them and most importantly apply for as many scholarships as you can.

Challenges Facing Native American College Students

Native American college students face notable challenges. The following is a list of some of those challenges faced, as well as some possible solutions to address these hurdles and limit their negative effect on Native American Indian students.


Cultural Ignorance/Insensitivity

Native Americans will be a minority on practically every college campus, except tribal colleges. This means many students, professors and staff might be unaware of how their behavior or comments can come across as offensive. For example, a fraternity or other sanctioned school party may have a “Cowboys and Indians” theme. Perhaps the hosts harbored no ill will towards those who identify as Native American, but it doesn’t mean it’s not offensive.

Financial Struggles

This is one many college students face, but this problem is particularly acute given the higher percentage of Native American students who come from families living in poverty. To make matters more difficult, some tribal colleges do not participate in federal student loan programs.

Cultural Difference

This applies to any student coming from a background that is different than that of a fellow classmate. In particular, many Native Americans come from tribes that have a particularly strong culture of sharing and family support. When a parent or sibling back at home needs help, Native American students can find themselves torn between competing obligations.

Lack of Peer Mentors

With so few Native Americans in college, it’s easy to see how it will be difficult to find a peer mentor. Many schools offer peer mentors to minority students, especially freshman, but many schools will have no choice but to offer a non-Native American as a mentor. This is unfortunate, because it takes a peer mentor to truly understand what the Native American student is going through and the challenges they face.

Inadequate Housing

Compared to many other demographic groups, Native Americans are often considered nontraditional students in that they are older than the average college student. This makes it difficult for many schools to provide on-campus housing to Native American students, who often have children.

Poor College Preparation

Many Native American college students find themselves ill-prepared for the challenges of college. Whether it’s adjusting to living away from family or dealing with academic coursework, many students have no idea what to expect until they are already on campus and classes have begun.


Most colleges and universities encourage Native American students to attend their institutions and are enthusiastic about increasing the diversity of their student population. Some schools even have programs are in place that can help Native American students adjust to college life.

Nontraditional Housing

A growing number of schools, especially at the community college level, recognize the increasing number of students with young children. As a result, schools offer housing options that allow for young children to live with their student parents, as well as day care to watch over the children while their parents attend class.

Remedial Coursework

A lot of colleges recognize that many students, regardless of cultural or ethnic identity, are academically unprepared for the rigors of college. As a consequence, they offer remedial courses so students can better handle their college coursework. Unfortunately, this isn’t an ideal solution as it usually requires tuition funds to be spent on classes that don’t count toward credit and can prolong the time it takes to get a degree. However, it can reduce the chances of dropping out due to academic reasons.

Foster the Student’s Family Relationship

For many Native American students, one of their strongest motivating factors to succeed in college is to help the family or community back at home. This includes reaching their professional potential to help provide financial support to family members. This relationship can motivate in a less tangible sense. For example, a lot of Native American students are first generation college students. As a result, their families take great pride in the fact that their son or daughter is in college. The desire not to let their families down is a strong motivator for college students.

Advocacy Organizations and Tribal Colleges

With only 13 percent of Native Americans holding a college degree, it’s imperative that more of these students are encouraged to attend and graduate from college. There are organizations and schools created for the sole purpose of advocating for Native American college students. These organizations and colleges strive to support Native American students in excelling in their academic endeavors, while still maintaining strong ties to their tribes and communities.

Advocacy Organizations for Native American Students

Native Americans comprise a very small percentage of college students in the United States. Unfortunately, the number of Native American students in college is not proportional to the number of Native Americans in the general population. Many organizations are working to change this, such as:

How Tribal Colleges Help

Tribal colleges and universities are institutions of higher learning run by Native American Indian tribes. Most tribal colleges have been around only for a few decades. In addition to teaching standard academic subjects, tribal colleges also have curricula that cover the traditions and culture of the sponsoring tribe or group.

The Importance of Tribal Colleges

Tribal colleges serve a critical role in their communities. They’re usually the only opportunity for a post-secondary education for the local population. This is due not only because of their location, but because tuition and cost of attendance is generally less than that of a typical four-year university. Additionally, there are financial aid opportunities available only to students who are members of a federally recognized Native American Indian tribe or Alaska Native group.

Tribal colleges are the primary source of teaching and preserving tribal customs and cultures. Many tribes rely on the tribal college as a means of formally teaching the history and ideas of their respective tribes. To help students afford the cost of attendance, many schools and organizations offer school specific scholarships, such as the following:

Map of Tribal Colleges

To find out where the over 30 tribal colleges are located, check out the below map. You’ll notice that most are on or near Native American Indian reservations.

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