Decades-old tuition waiver impacts University of Minnesota students

The American Indian Tuition Waiver, which is still in effect today, dates back to the Morris campus's boarding school history

On the west side of the University of Minnesota-Morris campus stands an Anishinaabe grandmother, shrouded in a sacred blanket and embraced by two grandchildren.

The sculpture, unveiled late last month by artist Duane Goodwin, is the newest addition to the University’s collection of programs and policies acknowledging its origins as a boarding school for Native American youth.

One of the earliest policies to address this history was Morris’s full tuition waiver for Native American students.

The policy, which is still in effect today, helps determine Native American student enrollment at the University, which has been slowly rising.

In 2018, about 20 percent of the University’s Morris campus student population was listed as American Indian – a number that dwarfs other University of Minnesota system campuses, at which Native American students make up between 1 and 3 percent of the student population.

Century-old roots

  The boarding school first opened in 1887 and later operated as the Morris Industrial School for American Indians from 1896 to 1909, run by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, as one of many government-supported boarding schools around the country.

    When Congress transferred the boarding school land to the Minnesota government, it ordered that “Indian pupils be admitted free of charge for tuition and on terms of equality with white pupils,” according to the waiver, which solidified this agreement in 1960.

Among many of its activities, the school used assimilation to isolate students from their families, communities and cultures.

The boarding schools inflicted an intergenerational trauma that communities are still healing from today, said Sandra Olson-Loy, Morris’s Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs.

 Today, the waiver admits students free of tuition who can demonstrate a connection to a federally recognized Native American tribe in the continental United States, Alaska or Canada.

  Gabe Desrosiers, a Morris alumni and American Indian Studies professor at the University, said programs which support the school’s Native American community help the campus become a haven for Native American students.

“The school is trying to work towards a kind of reconciliation… to have a better relationship not only with Native students, but also with the Native communities out there— to try to invite them with open arms and have inclusion all in the name of the success of Native students,” Desrosiers said.

Years later, a growing community

Within the last two decades, the number of Native American students across the University has been slowly increasing.

Past and present Morris students say this growth, which is tied to the tuition waiver, helps create a community that’s hard to find elsewhere.

Native American student enrollment has climbed from 17 to 20 percent of the Morris student population since 2014, according to the  UMN-Morris Institutional Data Book.

In 2000, that number was as low as five percent.

This gradual growth is likely connected to the tuition waiver, which becomes more important as tuition rates rise across the country, Olson-Loy said.

“[There’s] the value of the waiver and the quality of education — coupled with an understanding in communities that [Morris] is a place where Native students are successful,” Olson-Loy said.

Jill Doerfler, an American Indian Studies professor at UMN-Duluth who used the tuition waiver when she attended Morris for her undergrad, said she thinks Morris’s reputation for having a strong American Indian community attracts students just as much as the waiver.

“Sometimes students in a reservation community have never been in an environment where they’re the only Native student,” Doerfler said. “That can be a very isolating feeling – where the population is more diverse, you don’t feel so isolated.”

   Morris also hosts organized events and programs for community building, like annual powwows and an elder-in-residence program.

The University is within 150 miles of six Native communities, Olson-Loy said.

Sasha Suarez, a UMN-Morris alumna and graduate student at UMN-Twin Cities, said although it took her almost a year to adjust to living in a larger Native community than she was used to during her time at Morris, it ultimately became vital to her academic success.

“Without the Native student population, I think I would have struggled a lot more [at college],” Suarez said. “[Without the community] I probably wouldn’t have finished.”

Future outlook informed by the past 

Though Morris’s tuition waiver contributes to community on campus, some students say it doesn’t go quite far enough.

Students and faculty say the tuition waiver doesn’t remove all institutional and communal hurdles that Native American students face, in part because the waiver is uniquely available to Morris students and can’t ensure that non-Native American students know its history. 

Charles Golding, a board member of the American Indian Student Cultural Center and second year student at UMN-Twin Cities said the tuition waiver should be applied to the Twin Cities campus as well— though his opinions are personal and don’t reflect the AISCC’s formal stances.

Making the waiver available for Twin Cities students could improve its enrollment numbers for American Indian students, Golding said, but most importantly, it would address the Twin Cities campus’s history 

    Many students don’t realize the Twin Cities campus is built on unceded Dakota land, despite the availability of literature on this history. That is lack of information is a problem of its own, Golding said.

Suarez said with a strong Native community on the Morris campus,  issues often arose because the overwhelmingly white majority of the campus that often didn’t know as much as Native students about the school’s Native origins.

“[The lack of education] isn’t for a lack of information,” Suarez said. “I think it’s just for a lack of people looking into archival sources.”

This lack of understanding causes “layers” of tension between Native and non-Native students that show when non-Native students assume Native students attend school “for free,” Suarez said. 

“I think it’s not only the University’s job to have that information [on the Native origins of the University] of out there, but also partly part of the student population’s job to be receptive to that history,,” Golding said.

These tensions won’t be undone by programs like the tuition waiver alone.

“[Native-oriented programs] are nice steps in the right direction, but I don’t believe that recognition of the history should end with American Indian students,” Golding said.