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‘Remove the financial barriers,’ MSU Denver hopes to increase Indigenous student population with new grant

Metropolitan State University of Denver freshman Isabella Vigil sits in her favorite spot in the library. She received the university’s new Indigenous and Native Peoples Grant which covers the cost of tuition and fees.
Stephanie Daniel
Metropolitan State University of Denver freshman Isabella Vigil sits in her favorite spot in the library. She received the university’s new Indigenous and Native Peoples Grant which covers the cost of tuition and fees.

Native students have thelowest collegeattendance rates of any ethnic and racial group. One of the biggest barriers is the cost. To tackle this, Colorado lawmakerspassed a bill last year that requires state schools to offer in-state tuition to any student who is a member of a Native Nation with historical ties to the state, regardless of where they live. This fall, Metropolitan State University of Denver took this a step further, removing this financial barrier altogether.

Metropolitan State University of Denver freshman Isabella Vigil is still discovering new places on campus but so far, the library is her favorite spot. She’ll often snag a table or chair in one of the nooks next to the big windows facing the courtyard.

“I like it here just because there's many different types of, like, settings and sitting areas,” she said. “I try to sit by windows as much as I can, but sometimes it gets pretty crowded in here.”

Vigil is a first generation college student who grew up in Denver. She’d planned to attend another state school until her mom intervened.

“My mom actually sent me a Facebook post by Metro about the scholarship and we kind of took that into consideration,” she said.

The scholarship is MSU Denver’s new Indigenous & Native Peoples' Grant which covers the cost of tuition and fees. Vigil, who is Hispanic and a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation, received the grant and said it’s allowed her to feel less stressed about paying for school. She’s already got a full plate, majoring in biochemistry and working 24 hours a week as a certified nursing assistant.

“I actually want to be a surgeon so I want to go to medical school after this. So the main kind of focus with choosing university was based off of finances,” she said. “I'm trying not to be in debt for the rest of my life.”

Native students have the lowest college attendance and graduation rates of any ethnic and racial group. One of the biggest barriers is the cost of higher education. To tackle this, Colorado lawmakers passed a bill in 2021 that requires state schools to offer in-state tuition to any student, who would not otherwise qualify, who is a member of a Native Nation with historical ties to the state. MSU Denver took this a step further and removed this financial barrier altogether.

“Through a combination of federal, state and institutional dollars, we ensure that no student has a bill essentially for tuition or mandatory fees,” said Will Simpkins, MSU Denver vice president for student affairs.

The Indigenous & Native Peoples' Grant started this fall and is for undergrad students who are Colorado residents and enrolled with one of 574 federally recognized Native nations. Most of MSU Denver’s Indigenous students live along the Front Range and commute to campus, said Simpkins.

Will Simpkins, vice president for student affairs at Metropolitan State University of Denver.
Stephanie Daniel
/
KUNC
Will Simpkins, vice president for student affairs at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

“When it came to this grant program, it was very specific (that) there is an urban community of native indigenous students who in this state were not being served,” he said.

There are 122 Indigenous students enrolled at MSU Denver this semester and 63 were awarded the grant. The university saw a 74% increase in American Indian and Alaska Native students from fall 2021 to fall 2022. Even though the total number of students is still small, Simpkins said this is a good sign. People are learning about the program.

“To me that is a real lesson in when you remove the financial barriers to higher education of just (the) cost of attendance. Makes higher education so much more accessible,” he said.

In August, the National Native Scholarship Providers (NNSP) released its first National Study on College Affordability for Indigenous Students. NNSP is comprised of the Cobell Scholarship Program, American Indian College Fund, American Indian Science and Engineering Society, and American Indian Graduate Center and they worked collaboratively to “amplify the voices and experiences of Indigenous students in higher education,” according to the report. The study, funded by the Lumina Foundation, went beyond the basic costs of college and sources of funding to examine the integrated college-going experience of the student, “their family, community, tribe, and the promise of post secondary education.”

People often think of college affordability in terms of tuition, fees, and room and board, but there are other factors to consider, said David Sanders, vice president for research, evaluation and faculty development at American Indian College Fund. Most scholarships don’t cover everything these students need to succeed, for example, childcare.

“We know they don’t cover all the costs. We know about food insecurity. We know about housing insecurity,” he said. “What we found with students is that, sometimes they're the sole income for their household, including family, extended family members and so forth. A lot of them work more than 20 hours a week to make those ends meet.”

The COVID-19 pandemic brought to light some important issues, Sanders said. The emergency federal funding schools received and disbursed to students provided a crucial support system. The money helped them pay for unforeseen costs that may have derailed students from completing their education in the past.

“It was really important for them to have access to that,” he said. “I think the pandemic really showed that this is a real benefit.”

Their study offers practice and policy recommendations on how higher education and financial aid can best serve Indigenous students. This includes communicating and improving transparency around actual costs, a better understanding of these students and their financial needs, and offering emergency aid programs.

MSU Denver is one of a growing number of public universities across the country that have made tuition free for Native students. To make sure an Indigenous student is eligible for the grant, the school will cover the costs to get their tribal paperwork in order. In addition to financial aid, the university has also prioritized other types of support. MSU Denver is building a community advisory board that will involve input from Native Nations including Cheyenne and Arapaho on whose ancestral lands the school sits. It also created a job for specific community based student engagement to foster a sense of belonging on campus.

“We know from the higher ed literature that as we increase a sense of belonging, a student's academic performance increases and the likelihood that they will graduate increases,” Simpkins said. “It is a strategy around academic success, but it's also recognizing that for many of our students, finding that spot where you can go and be around other folks who share your identity is really important.”

Vigil has been busy juggling classes and work during her first semester but said one of her main goals is to meet people.

“I'm kind of making new friendships, which is really nice,” she said.

She’s looking forward to attending her first Native Indigenuos Student Alliance meeting. She’s missed that connection with her community.

“I'm pretty excited about that just because I haven't been a part of a student community like that since high school,” she said. “I would love to get back into that.”

Attending MSU Denver also allows Vigil to stay closely connected to another community. Her family. She lives with her parents and teenage brother with whom she’s very close. Vigil sees herself as a role model for him and her younger cousins.

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