Native Americans have been underrepresented in colleges and universities across the country, partly due to low high school graduation rates among American Indians and the cost of higher education. With the typical college degree costing thousands of dollars a year, many Native American students can't afford to go to college without significant financial aid. Those who are able to attend college, often do not complete their degree at the same rate as their peers.

Recognizing the unique circumstances and needs of Native American students, many schools, nonprofits, and government agencies have stepped in to help. From tuition waivers to scholarships and grants, there are many options for Native Americans seeking to defray the cost of a college education. Below you will be able to explore an array of scholarship and financial aid opportunities and other resources available for Native American students.

Am I Eligible? Proving Ancestry

Candidates must prove their ancestry when applying for scholarships and grants that are geared specifically for Native Americans. Proof varies from one scholarship to the next but key documentation bridges many programs and applications, especially for federal aid.

You will need both your birth certificate and at least one parent's enrolled tribal documents. If the descendency goes back to your grandparents, you will also need copies of as many of their birth certificates and tribal enrollment documents as you can gather. Other documents that are often accepted include an official letter from the tribe stating the enrollment status or a copy of the tribal identification card. Applicants may also need a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood which is issued by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Students will have to provide supporting documents and will then be issued a certificate that shows the student's blood quantum and tribal affiliation. (Blood quantum is the percentage of your immediate heritage comprised of tribal ancestors).

If you are unsure of your ancestry, you can trace it through family and tribal records; school, church, and county courthouse records; and by researching American Indian tribal history in your region (your local library might have sources for this). You can also search the U.S. National Archives to identify ancestors. When searching, make sure to include the name of the individual, date, and place of birth, and your relationship to that person. And, of course, capture all the information you discover so you can build a compelling case.

Find State Aid

States with large populations of Native Americans offer state financial aid on top of the federal financial aid for which students might qualify. Sometimes that aid comes in the form of offering American Indians in-state tuition whether or not they are residents of that state. Other states offer tuition waivers and scholarships to cover room and board. Wondering what your state offers? Check out the table below for state financial aid.

Education Aid Offered by States for Native American Residents

State/Organization Eligibility
The Alabama Indian Affairs Commission Scholarships Must be a member of one of the federally recognized tribes in Alabama. View
Minority Teachers of Illinois Scholarship Program Must be an Illinois resident and Native American planning on teaching at an Illinois school for which the board of education determines is no less than 30% American/Black, Hispanic American, Asian American, or Native American. View
New York State Aid To Native Americans Open to enrolled members or children of enrolled members of a New York State tribe. View
University Of Arizona Native American Funding Open to Native American students in Arizona. Must have certificate of Indian Blood or tribal enrollment ID card. View
Minnesota Indian Scholarship Program Open to one-fourth or more American Indian students who reside in Minnesota. Must demonstrate financial need. View
Montana State University Native Scholarship American Indian Tuition Waiver Open to Montana students who are 1/4 American Indian or an enrolled member of a state or federally recognized tribe located in the state of Montana. Must demonstrate financial need. View
Kansas Ethnic Minority Scholarship Open to American Indian or Alaskan Native students who demonstrate financial need. Must have a GPA of 30.0 or better. View
Massachusetts Open to Massachusetts Native American residents. Must be a member of a tribe in Massachusetts. View
Michigan Open to Michigan students who are a quarter or more Native American blood quantum must be an enrolled member of a US Federally recognized Tribe. Must be a resident of Michigan. View

Additional Ways to Save: Budgeting Tips for Native American Students

Your monthly budget may not be the first place you think of when it comes to saving money, but there are cost-saving measures you can start applying to your spending today. The following budgeting tips will put money back into your pocket and help you build strong financial skills that can last your lifetime.

  • Create a Credit Card Spending Strategy
  • Credit cards may be useful for unexpected expenses, but if you're not careful or strategic with your credit, it’s easy to rack up debt. To help keep your budget and spending on track, check out what student credit cards, prepaid cards, and gas credit cards offer to help save you money.

  • Estimate or Refinance Your Auto Loan Payments
  • A new car is often one of the first big purchases college students make and one that can come with a large monthly payment. You can reduce your current monthly auto loan payment by contacting your lender or refinancing your loan. If you’ve been thinking about upgrading to a new or used car, calculate what monthly payment fits your budget before you purchase.

  • Find Affordable Renters Insurance
  • While property owners and homeowners are required to have insurance, it often doesn’t cover tenants belongings in the case of a fire, theft, or vandalism. Renters insurance is a necessary, yet affordable expense. If you’re currently covered, it may be a good time to start shopping around to see where you can save.

  • Review Your Car Insurance Options
  • While obtaining car insurance is legally necessary, most students don’t look into their options, coverage or discounts. It can save to shop around, especially if its been a couple of years with the same company, and compare quotes, and find out how you can apply student and good driver discounts.

    Tribal Colleges Offer Circles of Support

    To help increase the college outcomes for American Indians, the government has designated some schools as Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs). Currently, there are over 40 fully accredited Tribal Colleges and Universities in the U.S., located mainly in the Midwest.

    Tribal Colleges and Universities play an important role in many Native American communities. Often, these are the only postsecondary school around; consequently, many are instrumental in fostering American Indian culture, languages, and traditions. Students considering attending a tribal college or university can explore a range of benefits. First, many of these schools offer generous financial aid, scholarships, and grants to Native American students. The culture and programs at these schools are intended to create welcoming environments and thus present smoother transitions for American Indians, especially compared to non-tribal schools. According to the American College Fund's last findings back in 2010, as many as 86% of TCU students completed their degree programs while fewer than 10% of American Indian students who went from a reservation high school to a mainstream college finished their degree studies.

    Tribal colleges and universities can be a way for Native American students to earn four-year degrees but these schools are not for everyone. Many primarily offer associate's degrees and certificate programs, which open the door for quick career qualifications but require candidates for bachelor's degrees to transfer to colleges that offer four-year programs. A handful of larger tribal colleges and universities offer bachelor's degree programs. What's more, a lot of these schools emphasize categories of study mainly intended to serve the Native American community and that might not have wider value in the job marketplace. Majors or concentrations in health, administration, addiction counseling, tribal housing, education, and preserving Native American language and arts are valuable for tribal culture and advancement, but each student must consider the cost of attaining these degrees compared to the range of careers they might pursue with those degrees.

    Student Profile: Merging Tribal Heritage and STEM

    Mark Kantrowitz Sasha Rivers

    Sasha Rivers is a member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska and a graduate of Salish Kootenai College in Pablo, Montana. She received an American Indian College fund scholarship after honing a strategy to apply for aid for which she was uniquely qualified. "I knew that being a Native American (minority) student gave me an edge but I was also a woman in the STEM field," says Rivers. "I took what others may see as a disadvantage and turned it into an advantage. Being a woman in the STEM field, as well as coming from a rich cultural history, I knew I had found my edge."

    As she crafted her scholarship application essays, Rivers highlighted her resilience, leadership skills, and status as both female and minority. "I conveyed that I was a hard worker and gave examples of how. I showed diligence and drive with goals, hopes, and dreams to succeed," she says.

    Rivers believes she also had an edge due to her community service, volunteer work, and the network she built in the process. "Volunteering gives a student real-world experience (i.e. practice) and skills necessary for future employment such as leadership, teamwork, and effective communication," she says. In her essay, she credited help she received from mentors, instructors and supporters that assisted throughout the process — and how she has and intends to continue paying it forward

    So what does Rivers think students should do to get an edge in their scholarship search process? She says students need to be honest and inspiring.

    "Know your strengths and weaknesses and tell your audience the story of how you've called upon them to overcome obstacles," she says. "Remember your identity and where you come from. To my fellow tribal students, be proud of your heritage and use your tribal language."

    Tribal Aid Opens Doors

    Tribes often step in with additional financial aid for their members, especially for students who are not eligible for any scholarships or grants from the school they are attending or from the various non-profits focused on Native Americans. While the aid amounts can be small, each tribe handles funding differently in terms of the amount of aid and application deadlines. Each student must check with his or her own tribe to confirm both the availability of aid and the process for winning aid. Here's a look at how three tribes channel student financial aid to their members.

    The Cherokee Nation provides scholarship aid to enrolled members who are pursuing bachelor's degrees. Recipients must perform volunteer hours based on the amount of funding they are receiving: If they receive $2,000 in aid, the student would be required to volunteer for 20 hours. The community service can be completed with a non-profit organization or at a Cherokee Nation sponsored event. The volunteer work must be humanitarian or community-based.

    The Navajo Nation offers scholarships and financial assistance to eligible Navajo people. Assistance varies with some scholarship amounts from $1,000 to $5,000 annually. Upon graduation, recipients are expected to return to the Navajo Nation to apply what they have learned to benefit the development of the Navajo Nation.

    The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe provides assistance in the form of grants. For instance, the tribe offers the Higher Education Program to deliver additional financial aid to eligible Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Members.

    Scholarship Application: Questions and Answers

    Mark Kantrowitz

    Rafael Tapia, Jr., a member of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe in Arizona, has been collaborating with Native American students and career candidates for nearly three decades in various leadership roles with social service, government and Native American organizations. He offers a variety of tips for Native American students applying for scholarships.

    When it comes to winning scholarships, is there anything Native American students need to get across in their essays for the applications?

    First and foremost, tell your story and be authentic. This may sound simplistic, but it's key. Some students find it hard to talk about themselves and tend to overlook the importance of simple, yet interesting, details — for example, subjects or volunteer activities enjoyed in high school, recognition of someone who inspired them to do better, or being a first-generation college or university attendee.

    While the American Indian Education Foundation's (AIEF) scholarship essays must not exceed four pages, this varies by provider. All students applying for scholarships should be careful to meet the precise essay requirements of each provider as this is not a "one size fits all" application process.

    Your essay makes an impression on those who review your application. It provides an opportunity for students to highlight their qualities, experiences, beliefs, goals and other characteristics that set them apart from other candidates. This is not bragging — it's simply helping the reviewer get to know you. Ensure your essay has correct spelling, word usage, and grammar. Proper grammar and writing skills are not obsolete in the advent of email and texting.

    How can Native American students increase their odds of winning a scholarship?

    First, thoroughly complete the scholarship application. Be sure to fill in all the blanks and questions, unless otherwise instructed. Scholarship providers receive hundreds of incomplete application packages, making them easy to file away in the "do not keep" pile. Remember that your application speaks on your behalf. You will not be there to present yourself in person to the reviewer(s), so be sure you are shining through completely and confidently in your application. Learn more about what the scholarship provider is looking for in students and genuinely speak to this matter.

    How can Native American students make their scholarship applications stand out from the rest?

    Identify your strengths such as perseverance, loyalty, bilingualism, or a special responsibility or volunteer role. Akin to this, Native American students should include in their essays any special tribal traditions and participation through which they give back to their tribal community, as well as any goals in mind to help give back to their tribe through post-secondary education. Students can also leave an impression through their application form and general communication style. A handwritten application should be neatly written and legible. Emails or letters accompanying your package should be crafted with the same care as your essay.

    Should Native American students apply for multiple scholarships or just focus on one?

    The odds of winning a scholarship increase when students apply to multiple scholarship providers. Submitting only one or two applications limits the chances of success. PWNA counsels Native American students to apply for our AIEF scholarship along with other scholarships because the more applications submitted, the greater the chance of funding.

    Most scholarship applications have similar criteria, so after completing two or three, the information needed for completing others is already compiled and the student becomes more proficient at completing applications. AIEF scholarship students routinely apply for numerous scholarships which, when combined, help cover all academic expenses. Native American students should begin by researching college funding available specifically through their tribes. The amount and requirements vary by tribe, so begin early and make this your first stop.

    How early should students begin preparing for scholarship applications?

    We recommend that high school students begin preparing for the scholarship application process before their senior year. It often takes time to gather the necessary information, including transcripts, tribal identification cards, financials, and other necessary documentation. Juniors in high school should also realize there are many steps to get ready for college that precede the scholarship application process.

    Do students have to prove volunteer service in their Native American community?

    Only some scholarship applications require demonstrated service to a Native American community. Many do not, including AIEF, although we give an extra point in our scoring if there is proof of community service. Students are enriched by engaging in service to their community. Many of our AIEF students participate in a variety of cultural services - not only to serve their tribes but to help other groups as well.

    What other advice and tips do you have for Native American students looking for scholarship money?

    Share your college vision with your family, friends, and community to build a support system and keep you moving toward your goal. If you are in high school, ask your guidance counselor for insights and assistance. If your tribe has a higher education department, connect with someone who can help you with the scholarship search and application process.

    In the event you do not receive funding on the first try, do not give up on your dream of a college education. Access to college funding is a marathon, not a sprint. Maintain a steady pace, review and improve your application, rewrite your essay if needed and resubmit, as new opportunities open up every year. Higher education is a lifelong asset and attaining it deserves your best effort. Learn more about AIEF scholarships by visiting www.nativepartnership.org.

    Additional Resources

    Catching The Dream

    Helps Native American students find, apply and get into school and provides resources to help find and win scholarships, grants, and other aid. Provides students with tips on everything from finding money to crafting a winning college essay.

    Trace Indian Ancestry

    Provided by the U.S. Department of the Interior, this website provides information for Native Americans to determine if they are eligible members in a federally recognized tribe.