Advocates want free college for more Indigenous students 

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Capital News Service

LANSING — Some Michigan tribal leaders say a tuition waiver for Native American students is overly restrictive and hard to navigate.

While recent state and federal recognition of Indigenous People’s Day is appreciated, Native Americans deserve substantive commitments, said Aaron Payment, the chair of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. That’s why he wants to retain full funding for college tuition under a 1934 agreement and to change restrictive eligibility requirements.

In 1934, Michigan agreed to accept Indigenous students into state colleges and universities  without cost. In 1976, a tuition waiver to meet that obligation was spearheaded by the late U.S. Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Flint, while he was a state representative.

The program reimbursed colleges and universities for the annual cost of the waivers they granted, said Melissa Kiesewetter, the tribal liaison at the Department of Civil Rights. 

But in 1996, the state began funding the schools based on the average number of student waivers given over the previous three years.

That funding was rolled into the annual budget for each of these institutions without considering changes in Native American enrollment, Kiesewetter said.

While the reimbursement didn’t change, Indigenous enrollment did, and some institutions had to absorb extra costs for accepting those students.

In 2019, lawmakers fully funded the tuition waiver for the first time in 20 years, said Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor. Irwin is also a member of Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians.

“We’ve set it back the way it was supposed to be, where the state reimburses them for that number of students,” said Irwin.

This incentivizes colleges and universities to accept more Native American students, as the costs won’t come out of their own budgets. But that didn’t solve the problems of navigating the bureaucracy required for a tuition waiver. 

Michigan State University student Kelly Cooke identifies as Haudenosaunee. His waiver eligibility comes from membership in the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe.

Cooke, a longtime Michigan resident, had used the waiver at Lansing Community College. But despite approval, MSU classified him as an out-of-state student, meaning only a portion of his tuition is waived.

Using information from tribes, the Department of Civil Rights verifies eligibility for people like Cooke, Kiesewetter said. This requires one year of Michigan residency, but ultimately standards for in-state status for tuition are determined by individual schools.

“Next thing I know, I have this huge bill for tuition,” Cooke said. “It really racked my brain to find out this tuition waiver was fully funded when I was starting at MSU.”

While Cooke appeals MSU’s decision, his education is on hold. He regrets transferring schools.

“I wish I could backpedal a little bit here,” Cooke said. “But I didn’t know what I was getting into.”

The process is confusing, Kiesewtter said. It can help for students to reach out to tribal education departments, or even to her directly, if they have questions about the waiver.

It’s also difficult for a lot of Indigenous students to even access the waiver, Cooke said. Eligibility is limited to members of 574 federally recognized tribes who can prove they are at least 25% Native American.

There are 12 federally recognized tribes in Michigan, but some historic tribes can’t access the program, Kiesewtter said. Obtaining federal recognition is a long and difficult process.

To qualify for the waiver, a student must prove 25% Native American ancestry. This comes from federal policy under the Bureau of Indian Affairs to determine tribal membership, not based on tribal input.

The system sought to determine who is a “qualified native,” Irwin said. But focus on blood alone can be problematic and exclusionary 

“Most tribes view that as a racist process of trying to determine who’s Indian,” Irwin said. “The only time we usually talk about pedigree is with dogs and Native Americans.”

Payment agrees this requirement continues a racist policy and wants it removed.

This ignores the impact of state and federal government policies on Native Americans, Irwin said, such as children separated from their families put up for adoption or into boarding schools.

“A lot of people lose that thread in their family history from outright racism,” Irwin said. “They were literally trying to erase the culture and forcibly assimilate people.”

There’s also the march of time, Irwin said. Just because someone is not a certain percentage doesn’t mean they aren’t Native American.

“Every successive generation is an opportunity for those numbers to go down,” Irwin said. “Does that make those people any less a part of the family?”

Cooke said it was easy to confirm his eligibility with records of his family tribal enrollments. But for those who don’t have that, it can be hard to know if the waiver is worth looking into, or where to start, he said.

Modifying these standards would require changing the statute and determining new eligibility requirements, Irwin said. 

Cooke doesn’t have a particular idea for what this could be. But in his opinion, this dated system needs change to meet the needs of Indigenous students.

“Maybe there’s something else that defines what makes someone a quote unquote, Indian,” he said. “And maybe it’s not just blood.”

The Department of Civil Rights does not have a position on expanding eligibility, Kiesewetter said. Their focus is on meeting the needs of those currently in the program.

However, those who are unsure about their eligibility should still reach out, she said. There may be solutions or other options for financial assistance

“My goal 100% of the time is to preserve and protect this program and advocate for our Native American students,” Kiesewetter said. “Whether they’re tuition-waiver eligible or not.”

Those seeking assistance with the Michigan Indian Tuition Waiver can call the Department of Civil Rights at  1-800-482-3604. Messages should mention the program or Melissa Kiesewetter by name.

This story updated on Nov. 8, 2021, to correct a phone number.

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