In a Buzzfeed article last week, United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, ND was listed as the fourth highest in student loan defaults in the nation, with a 44 percent default rate. Yet before this article had even come out, United Tribes Technical College had already cut off student access to federal loans, along with the majority of colleges run by Native Tribes.
There are 32 tribal colleges in the nation but only 3 offer students the option to apply for federal loans. One reason for this is the government can pull funding entirely from schools with high default rates, which would mean — among other things — no more Pell Grants for that school. This would be disastrous for tribal colleges as the majority of their students rely heavily on Pell Grants.
Tribal colleges serve students with unique challenges, such as high poverty rates, and they often have difficulty repaying their loans. Because of this, many tribal college administrators do not believe student loans are in their students’ best interest.
“We completely disagree with that idea that students are worse off without federal loans. Particularly when you look at the demographics of our students — students who have lived with generational poverty, unemployment, who have no experience with credit — that’s a recipe for disaster when it comes to loans,” said Carrie Billy, president of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.
Last year, the New American foundation ran a series of focus groups to study borrowers who have difficulty repaying their students loans. The results showed that many of the students have little to no experience with borrowing money and do not fully understand how the process works. For instance, some students believed that they did not have to repay their loans if they didn’t graduate.
At around $6,000 a year, tribal colleges are less expensive than state schools but the average student is around the age of 27 and usually has children to care for. After graduation, tribal college students often have a hard time finding a job that will allow them to repay their loans. Because many come from reservations or rural areas jobs are in short supply.
Tribal colleges offer scholarships and tuition waivers in place of student loans, which means they need to have money to offer students, but usually deal with very limited funds, especially compared to other public schools. According to the American Council on Education, even though 47 percent of the students may be non-tribal state residents, states don’t usually fund tribal colleges.
Unlike other institutions, state and local governments are not obligated to offer funding to tribal colleges. This persistent under-funding can not only threaten the education of Native students but can also further the achievement gaps between Native and non-Native populations. It also could move these students to rely on private student loans, which come at a much higher cost in general.
The Tribally Controlled Colleges and Universities Assistance Act allows the federal government to pay as much as $8,000 per Native student but in 2016, tribal colleges received $6,355 per Native student.