College Search Q&A: Partnership With Native Americans

Many Native students think college isn't an option for them. Learn how PWNA and the American Indian Education Fund are helping those students succeed.

Accessing education is a struggle for many students and families across the country. For Native American students in particular, the barriers start at an early age. According to Partnership With Native Americans (PWNA)—a nonprofit organization whose vision is to create “strong, self-sufficient Native American communities"—one-third of Native American children live in poverty, and many have to travel for hours each day across rugged, remote areas to attend school. Many lack simple tools such as notebooks and pencils needed to participate in class—and the coronavirus pandemic has only added fuel to the fire.

As these students grow older, many think college isn’t an option for them, especially as they struggle to find funding—because despite the common belief, Native Americans don’t attend college for free. “Today, only 17% of Native American high school graduates begin college,” reports PWNA, “and of these [students], only one in five makes it through the academic, emotional, and financial stresses of the first year.” What can students, families, and colleges do to change this? What resources are available for Native students to help them succeed in school, pay for college, and make their higher education dreams a reality? We asked RaeAnne Schad, Higher Education Coordinator for Partnership With Native Americans, these questions and many more; check out her invaluable advice below.

Starting the college search

CX: What advice would you give to Native American students who want to attend college but may be pursuing it without the best educational foundation?

PWNA: Never give up on pursuing your dream of a college education. Many students face challenges like this, including Native American students. Our American Indian Education Fund (AIEF) scholarship committee has found that high GPAs don’t necessarily translate to college success. AIEF has witnessed many motivated students with mid-range GPA scores find success in post-secondary work, and for this reason, AIEF prioritizes scholarship applications in the middle academic range. Motivation and perseverance are at least half of the battle, and many of the AIEF scholars are also driven by their desire to create positive change in their own communities.

The coronavirus pandemic and remote learning

CX: Is the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbating this problem? What can Native students do to overcome challenges with remote learning and/or staying on track with their college plans?

PWNA: COVID-19 has greatly impacted education for Native students, especially those living in remote reservation communities like those served by Partnership With Native Americans. About a third of these students lack internet access, so teachers have had to deliver paper packets to their homes to keep them on track with their classmates. Others who have a laptop often seek out Wi-Fi access at a nearby place of business and study in the parking lot. Fortunately, the reservation schools and dedicated teachers have rallied around Native students to provide the best education possible at this moment. And PWNA has helped by continuing our deliveries of K–12 school supplies and backpacks for about 15,000 Native students this year.

Related: Video: Adjusting to Online Learning

Obstacles in the college search and application process

CX: What’s the biggest hurdle you feel Indigenous and Native students face in the college search and application process? What advice would you give to help them overcome that hurdle?

PWNA: Many Native American students hesitate when applying to college, primarily due to a lack of college funding and not wanting to incur debt with student loans. Many Americans believe college is free for Native Americans, but, in reality, many tribes have limited funding for college, and Native students apply for grants and compete for scholarship funding just like other students across America. Through our AIEF program, we’re seeing more and more Native students applying for undergraduate and graduate schools—many of them the first in their families to attend college. There’s hope for every student. Native American students who are truly motivated to attend college should start working with their high school counselor as early as possible, even by grade 10 or 11. Ask them about available scholarships, how to apply for federal scholarships (the FAFSA), how and when to take the ACT or SAT exam, and what else you need to do to get ready for college.

Finding a school that fits

CX: What should Native students look for during their college search to ensure they attend a supportive and inclusive campus community?

PWNA: Tribal colleges and universities with an organized Native Student Services Center are a good bet. If possible, students should tour the school ahead of time (or at least explore it online) to get a sense of what life on campus is like. Some colleges offer early orientation for incoming Native students to help them acclimate before the rest of the student body arrives. Students should also be mindful of all their options such as tribal colleges, regional community colleges, four-year universities, and trade/vocational schools. We recommend that Native students meet with their high school counselor about which type of school best fits with their educational goals. 

Related: List: 4-Year Colleges With the Largest Enrollment of Native American or Alaska Native Students

Getting to college and staying enrolled

CX: What do you believe colleges can do to help shrink the college-access gap for Native students? And how can they help ensure more of these students graduate in four years?

PWNA: Partnership With Native Americans helps address the funding gap by issuing AIEF challenge grants to colleges serving large Native student populations. If these college partners raise funds earmarked for Native students, we match the funds up to $20,000. Additionally, getting Native students connected to the school’s Native Student Services Center is a great aid, especially to first-year Native students who face unique barriers that other students don’t. For instance, some are living off-reservation for the first time, they are disconnected from their family, and they often face social prejudice.

AIEF also offers a unique mentorship program connecting scholars to professionals in the workplace. We send them care packages at back-to-school and exam time, and we also remember them during the holidays with gifts for them, their siblings, and/or their children under age 10 to ease stress around exam time. The students really appreciate our support and connection throughout the school year. Some have even told us most scholarship providers send a check and are never heard from again.

Resources for Native American students

CX: What resources would you suggest for Native students regarding financial aid opportunities, college admission, and the college search during COVID-19?

PWNA: Native American students across the US can apply for the American Indian Education Fund scholarships and learn more about our criteria here. We also offer AIEF Tools for Success as a free download to Native students. This is an extremely helpful resource with all the considerations for a college-bound student, a senior year timeline planner, and a list of Native scholarship providers. For more information, call 800-416-8102.

Related: Resources Students Need During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Sometimes it may feel like too many obstacles are in your way as a Native student, but let your passion and determination to gain a quality education drive you. By persevering, utilizing resources at your disposal, and reaching out to those who can assist you, you can make your college dreams come true. Happy Native American Heritage Month!

To learn more about Partnership With Native Americans’ mission and efforts to increase college access and retention for Native American students, please visit And to get your higher education journey started, check out our College Search tool.

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