Want a degree without classes and lectures? California community colleges test a new approach

Want a degree without classes and lectures? California community colleges test a new approach

A revolution is in the making at California’s community colleges: No more grades, no more sitting through lectures or seminars, no more deadlines. In a pilot program taking shape across eight of the state’s community colleges, the only requirement for some associate degrees will be “competency.”

Students who can prove that they have the relevant skills can earn that degree.

In theory, this model, known as “competency-based education,” could provide students with more flexibility and the potential to attain degrees faster in key job sectors. The pilot is geared toward working adults, many of whom left community colleges at record rates during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the state’s population of K-12 students continues to shrink, leaving colleges with fewer students right out of high school, the pilot aims to attract adults who are already in the workforce by “valuing their lived and work experience,” said Madera Community College President Ángel Reyna.

If successful, these community colleges will set themselves apart from every other two-year institution in the country. The pilot, which launched in 2021, provides eight California community colleges with up to $515,000 over the course of four years to each design a single associate degree program using this new model.

The goal is for students to be able to enroll at some point in the 2024-25 academic year, said Aisha Lowe, an executive vice chancellor at the California Community College Chancellor’s Office. In practice, colleges must overcome bureaucratic and logistical hurdles to make the new system work. At least one community college says it is struggling to hit the state’s deadline.

The challenge is to create something that works “but isn’t so different that colleges can still wrap their heads around it and engage,” Lowe said. “It’s definitely unprecedented.”

A new way to measure learning 

The new model restructures the requirements of a degree to reflect what students have learned, rather than the amount of time they spend in class.

Currently, all college degrees require a certain number of hours spent in a classroom, either  in-person or virtually. An associate degree, which California’s community colleges offer, requires roughly 3,000 hours spent in a classroom or on homework in a traditional academic year. That’s why some refer to it as a “two-year degree.”

Teachers get paid in part based on the number of hours they teach. Because of the high number of part-time students, the state funds colleges and universities based largely on the number of hours that a student spends in class, not the number of students themselves.

In this current system, students may be required to sit through classes to get college credit even if they can demonstrate they already have some of the requisite skills. Students who may have less time for school because of work or family obligations lose out too, said Charla Long, the president of the Competency-Based Education Network, a consultant for California’s pilot program.

“We’ve created an inequitable system because it’s so time bound,” she said.

In the new system, students seeking an associate degree in early childhood education at Shasta College in Redding will take 60 different exams, each one testing a specific skill, said Buffy Tanner, the college’s director of innovation and special projects. Students in the program will have materials to teach themselves, teachers will be available to answer questions and counselors will be able to provide wraparound support.

Currently, a student is required to take 20 semester-long classes for that same degree. Students in the new program will be able to take an exam up to three times and can move as quickly or as slowly as they want, Tanner said. In-state students in the new program who do not qualify for financial aid will pay the same total tuition, just shy of $2,800 for an associate degree, not including the cost of books, classroom supplies, or other miscellaneous fees. Shasta College, like the other colleges in the pilot, is still trying to figure out how much to pay faculty in the new system.

Not every student can succeed in this self-paced format. Tanner said the plan is to vet students for the program through questions about their lives and study habits: “Do you need external deadlines? What kind of self-discipline do you have?”

“We have to make sure students fully understand what they’re getting into,” she said.

A growing phenomenon

Such alternative education systems have existed for decades. Since the 1970s, some colleges and universities have experimented with new models of teaching and learning that offer more flexibility and try to evaluate students based on what they know, not on how much time they spent in class, Long said.

In 1997, a group of 19 governors from Western states agreed to develop a private, nonprofit institution, known as Western Governors University, to provide “competency-based” education. With roughly 150,000 students today, it’s the largest higher education institution in the country. Though headquartered in Utah, the university is entirely online and boasts students from all 50 states.

Other large for-profit and non-profit university systems have experimented with the same model, including Capella University, an online college, and Southern New Hampshire University. California followed. In 2018, at the behest of former Gov. Jerry Brown, the state created a new community college, known as Calbright, which is free, entirely online, and exclusively “competency-based.”

“This is radically different, and an incredibly powerful way to support our students,”  Calbright’s blog says about its model.

2020 survey of nearly 500 colleges and universities across the country found that 13%  were already offering at least one degree or certificate through competency-based education and roughly half of those surveyed were in the process of adopting one, though the report noted that there’s “considerable variation” about how they define the model.

Homework after 10 p.m. makes progress slow

For Calbright student Jeremy Cox, the appeal was less about the instructional method and more about the convenience of online education. He started taking online classes in 2016 through for-profit companies such as Udemy and Coursera.

Jeremy Cox at Seal Beach on Aug. 28, 2023. Julie A Hotz for CalMatters
Jeremy Cox at Seal Beach on Aug. 28, 2023. Julie A Hotz for CalMatters

“To be able to just pull out a phone and bust out a couple of lessons from Udemy or Coursera, that’s very helpful,” he said.

One day while at a park near Long Beach with his children, Cox ran into a woman who told him about Calbright College. While Udemy and Coursera do not focus on a particular instructional method, Cox said his experience at Calbright College has been pretty similar, with two key differences. Unlike Udemy or Coursera, he said, Calbright provides teachers who are more available and respond quickly to questions via Slack, a messaging app. The other difference is social interaction. He has become involved in building community among his classmates and serves as the college’s first student body president.

Calbright has had consistent enrollment growth each academic year since it began, despite a scathing report from the state auditor’s office. State legislators have repeatedly tried to defund the school, pointing to poor academic outcomes.

Even though the college advertises that students can finish certificate programs in less than a year, CalMatters found that fewer than 10% of Calbright students actually do. The data only runs through the spring of 2022, and Calbright was unable to provide updated figures.

Cox said he had intended to complete an IT certification at Calbright in three to six months with a goal of one day getting a job that involves user design, artificial intelligence or blockchain. Now, he expects it to take about a year and a half.

“My study time is when the kids go to bed. I only have after 10 p.m.,” he said. “And then with student body responsibilities, my time is split between the two. Half of it is with the student body and half is my studies.”

Creating an ‘unprecedented’ new system

With this new pilot, these eight community colleges in California aim to go one step further than Calbright College, using a similar concept but creating new curricula and setting up new systems to provide even more flexibility for students. Calbright is not in the pilot, but Lowe said the college has provided advice, such as strategies to support students outside the classroom.

By the 2024-25 school year, these eight colleges plan to change part of their state funding formula, faculty pay, and financial aid regulations. They’re also adapting the licenses that allow them to operate, a process known as accreditation. These are changes that take years of work and include getting approval from district boards, state officials and federal agencies. Adapting financial aid policies is particularly cumbersome, but Long, president of the Competency-Based Education Network, said if the eight colleges can succeed, they’ll be the first two-year institutions in the country to do it.

If the state’s community colleges can’t adapt to the competency-model of no lectures or grades, other schools will beat them to it, said Lowe, an executive vice chancellor with the community college system. She pointed to “for-profits” as the primary competitor.

At Shasta College, Tanner said the pilot program offered an opportunity to train students as the state ramps up its plans to offer free transitional kindergarten, which is a year of school offered to any 4-year old before kindergarten. California will need as many as 15,600 new early childhood educators by 2025-26 to teach transitional kindergarten.

State law sets requirements for transitional kindergarten teachers, such as taking 24 units of early education college classes or having comparable professional experience. For those who already have some background in early childhood education, but not enough to meet the requirements, the new course model could allow them to “quickly demonstrate that they know their stuff,” Tanner said.

Unions, faculty leaders voice concern

The success of the pilot depends on the support of the faculty.

“Take a look at teacher load, teacher contracts — that’s all connected to time in the classroom, lecture hours. This whole framework is going to have to break or change and nobody really knows how to go about doing that,” said Elizabeth Waterbury, a music instructor and the faculty association president at Shasta College.

While she supports the idea, she’s concerned about what the new system could do to faculty pay.

“I’m afraid we may be the ones who could make it more difficult for California to transition to competency-based education,” she said.

Tanner and her colleagues haven’t yet tried to sell the faculty union on the pilot. Instead, they plan to ask faculty involved in the pilot program to track their time so that the college first understands the workload.

Last fall, faculty leaders from the Madera Community College Academic Senate expressed concerns about the ways this new model might impact their pay  and intellectual property, college president Reyna said. The development of the new program has been on “pause” ever since, he said.

A Madera Community College banner hanging over the main walkway on campus on Aug. 28, 2023. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local
A Madera Community College banner hanging over the main walkway on campus on Aug. 28, 2023. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

On Aug. 25, the Madera Community College Academic Senate issued a resolution saying it was “deeply concerned” about the direction of the pilot program and asked the college to “reconsider” participating. However, the former president of the academic senate, Brad Millar, already signed off on the formation of the program on March 7, 2021, when the college submitted its application to join the pilot.

But in its resolution, the academic senate said anyone who signed the application on behalf of the group never sought approval from its members. When the members of the academic senate did discuss the program on Nov. 18, 2022, it “failed to garner support,” according to the resolution.

“In concept, there are many benefits,” Bill Turini, president of the Madera Community College Academic Senate, told CalMatters. One potential concern is that the model could lead to less qualified teachers in some instances, he said. He said the program is “still an abstraction” but pointed to other, simpler changes that he said yield similar results, such as more online instruction and flexible start dates.

Madera Community College is the newest community college in the state, officially recognized in 2020. It is part of a large district that includes Fresno City College, Clovis Community College, and Reedley College. None of the other schools in the district are participating in the pilot.

“Any policy that we want to change at Madera Community College to accommodate competency-based education, it impacts the three other colleges,” Reyna said.

East Los Angeles College is the only college participating in the pilot among a nine-college district. It’s the largest community college district in the nation. It’s been slow to implement some of the changes required by the pilot program, but success there could make it easier for other colleges in the district to follow.

“When you talk to faculty who’ve been here longer than 10 years and their picture of an East Los Angeles College student, they envision a 20-year-old student taking 15 units (full-time) at the Monterey Park campus. We’ve now grown to an older student population,” said Leticia Barajas, a faculty member and president of the college’s academic senate. “This is about institutional transformative change.”

This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association’s Reporting Fellowship program. Adam Echelman covers California’s community colleges in partnership with Open Campus, a nonprofit newsroom focused on higher education.

    Disparities persist in California’s transfer process

    The community college system is falling short of one of its most important benchmarks: the number of students who transfer to a four-year college or university. It remains well below the system’s own goal, and lawmakers have taken notice.

    “Although most students intend to transfer to a four-year university, few do,” wrote a group of state legislators this year as they asked the state to audit community college performance.

    Set in 2017, the goal was to increase the annual number of community college students who transfer to the University of California and California State University from nearly 89,000 to more than 120,000 by 2022. In the 2020-21 academic year, the most recent data available, nearly 99,000 community college students transferred to a UC or Cal State.

    The Community College Chancellor’s Office responded to questions regarding the transfer goal by forwarding a letter that former interim Chancellor Daisy Gonzales wrote to legislators in March as part of an internal negotiation regarding the audit. In it, she wrote that the goal “has not been fully achieved.”

    She wrote that the UC and Cal State system rejected nearly 30,000 eligible community college applicants in fall 2020 — more than enough transfers to meet the community colleges system’s goal. She wrote there was “insufficient capacity” at the UC and Cal State campuses and asked the auditors to include equal scrutiny of those systems, since everyone is mutually responsible for coordinating successful transfers.

    However, there are many ways to measure transfer. To get a clearer picture, CalMatters looked beyond the chancellor’s office goal and analyzed the raw number of students who transferred every year, which includes but is not limited to those who transfer to a UC or Cal State. Those numbers are reported by four-year institutions across the country and analyzed by the California Community College Chancellor’s Office. Undocumented students are not counted because they lack a Social Security number. It’s the methodology that most closely aligns with the state’s funding formula, which pegs the transfer numbers to the amount of money a college receives.

    CalMatters then compared those numbers to the total number of students who, upon starting community college, said they eventually wanted to get an associate degree or transfer.

    Of the students enrolled in a community college in California who said they wanted to transfer to a four-year university, an average of 9.9% went on to enroll at a four-year institution in 2021, the most recent data available.

    There are many reasons why students never transfer. The state’s roughly 1.8 million community college students are predominantly low-income, first-generation students of color. Many students, especially older students, must juggle work, children, and for some, even homelessness while attending school.

    But certain populations and colleges have a harder time with transfer than others. CalMatters found:

    • Students at rural community colleges are less likely to transfer to a four-year university than students who attend school in affluent parts of Ventura County, Orange County, the San Fernando Valley, and Bay Area suburbs like San Bruno, Pleasant Hill, and Redwood City.
    • Colleges separated by only a few miles show stark contrasts in transfer rates. In 2021, the most recent year available, the transfer rate at Irvine Valley College was 16.7%, but just 10 miles away, at Santa Ana College, the rate was 5.4%.
    • Younger community college students were most likely to transfer, and  the rates drop off the older a student gets. In 2021, students over the age of 50 were more than four times less likely to transfer than their peers between ages 20 and 24.

    Rural, unprepared students face biggest hurdles

    Lassen College has one of the lowest transfer rates in the state — 4.5% in 2021. It’s more than 10 percentage points below the highest performer, Irvine Valley College.

    The reason is easy to see, said Roxanna Hayes, the vice president of student services at Lassen College in Susanville: The nearest four-year institution is over 80 miles away at the University of Nevada in Reno.

    “It feels like we’re 2 hours from anything…when you come up to Susanville and you look around, there’s no other educational institution besides us.”

    “We don’t have the sort of income that other counties have,” Hayes said. “It’s not just getting accepted to school: I’ve also got to live there and afford it.”

    Among the community colleges with the lowest transfer rates, 60 percent are rural, and some are hours away from the nearest four-year institution.

    Airplanes and helicopters in the Aviation Technology building at West Los Angeles College Campus in Culver City on July 17, 2023. Photo by Julie A Hotz for CalMatters

    Because of its proximity to numerous four-year institutions like UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton, students at Irvine Valley College come to school already familiar with their transfer options, and most students don’t have to move if they want to pursue a bachelor’s degree, said Loris Fagioli, the director of research at Irvine Valley College.

    The rural-urban divide is part of the problem, but it can’t explain everything, said Darla Cooper, the executive director of the Research and Planning Group of the California Community Colleges, a separate nonprofit organization that is funded in part by the chancellor’s office. The income of the student body, the focus and “culture” of the school, and even the economics of the surrounding town or city impact the transfer rate at any community college.

    In the 2014-15 academic year, Los Angeles community colleges had some of the lowest transfer rates in the state, but that’s because many of its students were coming to community college unprepared, said Maury Peal, the community college district’s associate vice chancellor for institutional effectiveness.

    The colleges enrolled those students in remedial courses, which can take years to complete and can reduce the likelihood of graduation. Backed by research that shows remedial classes to be ineffective, a law passed in 2017 and another in 2022 asked colleges to start placing students directly in college-level courses. Pearl said these reforms, plus other efforts like special degrees that guarantee a transfer to a Cal State or UC, have led to an uptick in transfer rates across the L.A. colleges.

    West Los Angeles College, for instance, had a 5.4% transfer rate in 2015, among the lowest in the state. But by 2021, it was up to 12.3%, well above the statewide average.

    “The fact that it’s improved is something we’re proud of, but it’s still not where we want to get to,” said Jeff Archibald, vice president of academic affairs for West Los Angeles College.

    ‘Swirl,’ prisons, and ‘transfer-oriented culture’ set schools on different paths

    Unlike four-year institutions, which are often singularly focused on bachelor’s degrees for young adults, community colleges offer a range of educational opportunities depending on the demographics in the surrounding towns or cities, which can make it hard to compare one community college to another.

    Located in Blythe, a rural town near the Arizona border, Palo Verde College has consistently had the lowest transfer rate of any community college. In 2021, just 1.1% of Palo Verde College students who indicated they wanted to transfer succeeded in doing so — but roughly half of the college’s students are in prison. Other rural colleges with low transfer rates, including Lassen College and Feather River College, also enroll a high percentage of incarcerated students relative to other schools.

    Rural areas also come with different job opportunities, especially compared to the state’s highly educated coastal cities, Cooper said.

    “Do the jobs where you’re located require a bachelor’s degree?” she said. “Because if they don’t, you’re probably not going to have a lot of transfer.”

    In dense urban areas like Los Angeles, students tend to take classes at multiple  community colleges, creating a “swirl” in the data that can mask some long-term outcomes,  Archibald said.

    But disparities still persist, even within the same city. Los Angeles Pierce College and Los Angeles Valley College, which are located in the San Fernando Valley, consistently outperform other Los Angeles community colleges.

    Pearl said Pierce and Valley College have developed a reputation for preparing students for four-year colleges or universities. He pointed to other Los Angeles community colleges, such as Los Angeles Trade-Technical College, which are geared towards career and technical training.

    A 2008 Research and Planning Group report found that a “transfer-oriented culture” was a recurring reason why certain community colleges had higher-than-expected transfer rates. The report also said those colleges had close relationships with local high schools and four-year institutions, along with support services for students.

    Although the report was done 15 years ago, the transfer rate patterns have persisted. Many of those schools profiled by the Research and Planning Group in 2008, such as Irvine Valley College, continue to outperform their peers today, according to the CalMatters analysis of recent data.

    Community colleges in wealthy areas or those with high-performing high schools have higher transfer rates, too. “We know this with almost all educational outcomes, there is an economic or socio-economic driver behind it,” Faglioli said.

    Pearl said Los Angeles Pierce and Valley colleges benefit from “high-performing” charter schools nearby, which can boost transfer rates if community college students start school better prepared.

    Why transfer still matters

    To encourage colleges to meet the system’s goal of increasing transfers to a UC and Cal State, community college officials put forward a new formula that pegged a portion of a community college’s funding to its outcomes. One of those outcomes is the number of people who transfer to a four-year institution.

    But Lizette Navarette, interim deputy chancellor of the community college system, said that community colleges with low transfer rates are not getting penalized.

    That’s because the new funding formula also takes into account the percentage of low-income students who meet certain benchmarks for success and the number of students who complete career-oriented programs. Navarette said rural colleges and other schools with low transfer rates have the opportunity to make up any potential gaps in state funding.

    Lassen College, for example, received nearly $3 million more dollars last year than it would have under the previous funding formula, despite having some of the lowest transfer rates in the system.

    However, the greatest impact of low transfer rates is not on the community college but on the student, Cooper said.

    “For most people of color, most people who are low-income, community college is their only way into higher ed,” she said. “Even if what they want to pursue requires a bachelor’s degree, not everyone can go straight to a university.”

    Four-year colleges and universities are selective and can be expensive, she said. While some community college students can earn more with a certificate or an associate degree than those with a bachelor’s degree, she said those students are the exception, not the norm.

    “Everybody wants to bring out Bill Gates,” Cooper said. “He didn’t graduate college….If you can be that, awesome, great, fantastic. But for most people, it’s beneficial for life.”

    In the internal letter to the state auditors, former interim Chancellor Gonzales pointed to areas where the community college system has seen significant gains toward its 2017 goals. More students are completing their courses and gaining degrees, for instance.

    In general, more students are transferring to a four-year college, according to the CalMatters analysis, which includes upticks in the number of students transferring to a UC or Cal State. But the progress remains less than third of the goal that the chancellor’s office set out to accomplish by 2022.

    A spokesperson for the Community College Chancellor’s Office said the system will deliver a new transfer goal “in the coming weeks.”

    Data reporter Jeremia Kimelman contributed to the reporting for this story. 

    Adam Echelman covers California’s community colleges in partnership with Open Campus, a nonprofit newsroom focused on higher education.

    College tuition breaks for Native students spread, but some tribes are left out

    SALEM, Ore. — Jaeci Hall completed her dissertation in tears. She was writing about the importance of revitalizing and teaching Indigenous languages, specifically the Nuu-wee-ya’ language and her tribe’s dialects. “I spent months writing,” she said, “just crying while I wrote because of how it felt to not be recognized.”

    Hall — who graduated in 2021 with a doctorate in linguistics from the University of Oregon — is the language coordinator for the Coquille Indian Tribe.

    But Hall is not part of the federally recognized tribe of the Coquille. She’s part of the Confederated Tribes of Lower Rogue, which she described as the descendants of nine women who relocated and returned to the Rogue River after the Rogue River Wars of the 1850s in southern Oregon. Despite their rich history and Hall’s documentation of her heritage, Hall and her ancestors are not acknowledged by the United States government as a tribal nation.

    Hall’s status meant that when she was earning her degrees, she didn’t qualify for financial assistance designed for Native students. She would not have been eligible for tuition waiver programs instituted in Oregon last year that reduce or eliminate costs for students who belong to federally recognized tribes.

    Oregon instituted a statewide tuition waiver program for Native students last year, but it applies only to those from federally recognized tribes. Credit: Don & Melinda Crawford/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

    For decades, a handful of individual states and schools have offered financial assistance to Native students. A new wave of offerings this past year – spurred in part by growing land rights movements and a larger focus on racial justice following the murder of George Floyd – shows the programs are becoming increasingly popular.

    The programs are meant to help reduce the barrier of cost for Native students, who have historically faced significant challenges in attending and staying in college. Native students have the lowest college-going rate of any group in the United States, a third less than the national average, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And since 2010, Native enrollment in higher-ed institutions also has declined by about 37 percent, the largest drop in any student demographic group. Studies suggest affordability is one of the leading causes of attrition.

    But in nearly every iteration of these programs — old and new — only some Indigenous people benefit.

    That’s because the U.S. government does not formally acknowledge the status of an estimated 400 tribes and countless Indigenous individuals, thus shutting them out of programs meant to reduce barriers to higher education. Tribes have to meet several criteria in their petitions for federal recognition, including proof they’ve had decades of a collective identity, generations of descendants and long-standing, autonomous political governance.

    As a result, thousands of Native students aren’t getting the same opportunities as their peers in recognized tribes and are left with a disproportionate amount of debt. Affected students say the disparate treatment also leaves social and emotional wounds.

    “I made it through it,” Hall said, adding with a laugh that she did most of her dissertation work remotely during Covid, often with her toddler playing around her. “And I would have made it through it better if I had had more support.”

    Native students have the lowest college-going rate of any group in the United States, a third less than the national average, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Credit: Shae Hammond for The Hechinger Report

    Hall is now paying off about $190,000 in student loans, the cumulative cost of her undergraduate degree from Linfield College in Oregon, her master’s at the University of Arizona and her doctorate from the University of Oregon. A loan forgiveness program through her work will cut her obligation to roughly $50,000, but the total harms her chances of receiving a loan or improving her credit.

    Hall’s children, who has Native status because of her father’s enrollment in a recognized tribe, will likely have opportunities Hall did not. If her daughter, for example, a Eugene middle schooler, maintains a 3.0 grade-point average, she will be able to attend the University of Oregon for free.

    There are “so many people that are stuck in poverty and stuck in situations where they can’t get an education,” Hall said. “I started thinking … how hard their lives are, and how much of a difference could be made.”

    Related: States were adding lessons about Native American history. Then came the anti-CRT movement

    Individual schools and states across the country have instituted varying forms of these tuition programs over the years. The University of Maine, for example, has had a tuition waiver option since the 1930s. The program helped the school retain its Native students during the pandemic at higher rates than the national average, according to Marcus Wolf, a university spokesperson. Michigan and Montana have had waivers available for Native students for almost half a century.

    Oregon joined this list, beginning with the 2022-23 school year, when then-Gov. Kate Brown announced the introduction of a statewide grant fund. The Oregon Tribal Student Grant covers tuition, housing and books at public institutions and some private universities for undergraduate and graduate students belonging to Oregon’s nine federally recognized tribes. The money is awarded only after students apply for federal or state financial aid.

    In its first year, 416 students received the grant, according to Endi Hartigan, a spokesperson for the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission. Oregon lawmakers allocated $19 million for the first year — based on an estimate that 700 or more students would receive a grant — and this legislative session, they codified the program in state statute and allocated $24 million for the next two years.

    Several state universities – including Western Oregon, Oregon State, Portland State and Southern Oregon – also began providing an additional form of financial aid. Last year, these schools extended in-state tuition prices to members of all 570-plus federally recognized tribes in the U.S., regardless of what state they live in. The same is true for the University of California system, the University of Arizona and other institutions across the country.

    The University of Oregon has tried to extend its tuition waiver programs for Native students to at least some members of unrecognized tribes. Credit: Don & Melinda Crawford/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

    Western Oregon started its Native American Tuition program last fall. It’s been a slow start to get students interested, with public records requests revealing that fewer than 10 students applied for or participated in the program in its inaugural year. However, the impact it has on those students is substantial: The university estimates the program saves participating students nearly $20,000 per student per year.

    Anna Hernandez-Hunter, who until June was the director of admissions for Western Oregon, said the numbers are low because the program is new and the university enrolls few students from out of state (only about 19 percent of undergraduates). She said the university has made the application process easier for next year, published more information online and made sure admission counselors are sharing the information with prospective students.

    But eligibility for that program, like the vast majority of such tuition offerings, requires enrollment in a federally recognized tribe.

    Western Oregon’s Office of the President, as well as communications and admissions officials with the University of Oregon,  declined to comment specifically on why unrecognized tribes are excluded from the programs. One university official said on background that, generally speaking, program staff at any university have to follow federal and state guidelines, as well as standards for who qualifies for the resources.

    Institutions typically validate a student’s enrollment by requiring a federally issued tribal ID or a letter from a recognized tribal council confirming enrollment. Native advocates said some students don’t have this kind of documentation even when they are enrolled in a recognized tribe. Documentation depends on the information families can access to prove their lineage. Enrollment requirements differ from tribe to tribe, and after generations of forced removal and assimilation, such documentation can be limited. 

    Limiting which Native students get financial assistance is especially significant, given the rising cost of post-secondary degrees. According to the College Board, the average cost of tuition and fees at a public, four-year school was $10,940 for in-state students in 2022-23 or $28,240 for out-of-state students. And research by the Education Data Initiative shows Native students borrow more and pay more per month in student loan debt than their white peers.

    Native students have the lowest college-going rate of any group in the United States, a third less than the national average, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

    Some colleges or states have agreements with specific unrecognized tribes. Oregon, for example, allows members of Washington’s Chinook Indian Nation, which is fighting to regain its federal recognition, to at least access in-state tuition because the Chinook have tribal boundaries in Oregon.

    Jason Younker leads the University of Oregon’s Home Flight Scholars Program, which is one of the school’s many assistance programs available for Native students. Launched last October, Home Flight not only works to recruit more Native students to the university but also provides funding, mentors, culturally specific programs and support to help Native students adjust to life on campus.

    Younker said students can prove their eligibility for the program by showing a Certificate Degree of Indian Blood card (CDIB) instead of enrollment records. Blood quantum, or the measurement of someone’s “Indian blood,” has a long, controversial history in the U.S. And certificates are only available to people related to members of recognized tribes. But Younker said this allows someone to show they are Native without enrollment records since some tribes’ enrollment requirements exclude those who still have high percentages of Native blood.

    Younker, who is part of the Coquille tribe, said the university allows students to show blood quantum via a Certificate Degree of Indian Blood card (CDIB) — which is only available to people related to members of recognized tribes — instead of enrollment records since some tribes’ enrollment requirements exclude those who still have high percentages of Native blood.

    Program leaders also allow students, even those from unrecognized tribes, to apply to Home Flight via letters from council members, in an attempt to extend this support to at least some of Oregon’s unrecognized students pursuing undergraduate degrees.

    Younker said the question should no longer be: “Can I afford to go to college?” The question should be: “Where can I go to college?”

    “Each and every one of us has had an ancestor that sacrificed and survived so that they could have the choices that they do today,” he said. “I always tell students: ‘It doesn’t matter where you go; it matters that you do go.’”

    But he said tuition assistance isn’t enough to attract and retain Native American students. To succeed in this, colleges must also recruit on reservations, provide academic counseling, cultural support and a community of peers, and include Native leaders in major decisions at the university. “If you don’t have those kinds of things, you’re not a very attractive school — no matter how much tuition you waive,” he said.

    Related: 3 Native American students try to find a home at college

    For students and parents like Yvette Perrantes, the lack of support affects multiple generations.

    Perrantes wanted to go to college as an adult so she could move into a higher income bracket. She’s a member and leader of the Duwamish Tribe, who lived on the land that is now South Seattle, Renton and Kent, and have been called Seattle’s first people. They’ve fought a decades-long battle for federal recognition that continues today.

    Without tribal status and consequent financial aid, Perrantes owed $27,000 in student loans after finishing her associate degree in clean energy technologies at Washington’s Shoreline Community College in 2014. She deferred her loan payments until she no longer could. Threatened with having her wages garnished, she filed for bankruptcy. Her credit score took a hit. She had to keep making payments, but now had no chance of leasing a car, getting a credit card or exercising other opportunities.

    Yvette Perrantes is a member and leader of the Duwamish Tribe. They’ve fought a decades-long battle for federal recognition that continues today. Credit: Photo provided by Yvette Perrantes

    Her son was looking into college at the same time Perrantes faced these financial hardships. He hoped to receive an athletic scholarship, but when he tore his ACL, the young student-athlete stopped pursuing higher education altogether. In his eyes, Perrantes said, all it would lead to was debt.

    The effects of exclusion from federal recognition and benefits are compounded, Perrantes said, for those who come from families, like hers, with intergenerational trauma and parents who are “doing a lot of healing themselves.”

    Not “being included in this process with the federal government and not having equal access to student loans and money for education, and more interest rates, you know, everything that comes along with federal recognition,” she said, “it’s pretty crushing to the spirit.”

    Perrantes now works as a program manager for Mother Nation, a Seattle-based nonprofit that focuses on cultural services, advocacy, mentorship and homeless prevention for Native women. She worries that students who go out of state for school may be disproportionately denied aspects of their identity. If someone isn’t a recognized tribal member, she said, they aren’t allowed to participate in certain cultural practices such as burning, smudging, harvesting certain trees or having an eagle feather. Those barriers are even more pronounced when the person is from a different state. 

    “[H]ow are we going to be educated enough to cite policy, to fight for recognition? We need more Natives who are educated and who are willing to do the work for the people.”

    Yvette Perrantes, a member of the Duwamish tribe and a leader on its council

    “Being Native and being grounded in your ways, traditionally, and being out of state, outside your family, outside of your tradition, outside of your culture, and then you’re not being able to practice your cultural ways. You know, I think it’s impactful on your emotional, spiritual and mental health,” she said. “We need those to sustain ourselves as students.”

    Perrantes still encourages Indigenous students to pursue education at all costs. That way, she said, they can be the ones making laws and the ones teaching their history in the classroom. “The pen is mightier than the sword,” she said. “I know that sounds so cliche, but how are we going to be educated enough to cite policy, to fight for recognition? We need more Natives who are educated and who are willing to do the work for the people.”

    As states and institutions expand tuition waiver programs, Hall, the doctoral graduate from the Confederated Tribes of Lower Rogue, would like to see different ways used to verify a claim of being Native and for resources to extend to unrecognized students. Her advice for Native students is to be as stubborn as they can, to believe in themselves and to remember that any kind or any level of education will improve their lives and that of their community.

    “We all have some history. We’re survivors. Regardless,” Hall said. Education “is an answer to the prayers of our ancestors, no matter if we’re recognized or not.”

    This story about Native American tuition waiver programs was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

    The post College tuition breaks for Native students spread, but some tribes are left out appeared first on The Hechinger Report.

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