UW-Madison Program to Cover Tribal Students’ Tuition and Other Expenses

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Kalista Memengwaa Cadotte, third-year UW-Madison student with the Odaawaa-zaaga’iganing tribe (Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe), speaks at a press conference announcing the Wisconsin Tribal Educational Promise program. (Photo courtesy of Bryce Richter/UW–Madison)

Federally recognized Native American tribal members in the state of Wisconsin will qualify in the fall for a new program covering tuition and fees, housing, food, supplies, and other educational expenses at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison).

The initiative, known as the Wisconsin Tribal Educational Promise Program, is launching for undergraduate, medical degree, law degree, and currently enrolled Native American students.

Undergraduate freshmen will be eligible for four years of financial support, while transfer students will qualify for two years. The graduate degree program will start as a five-year pilot, with law school tuition covered for three years and medical school tuition for four years.

With a focus on expanding educational access for tribal students, the program addresses long-standing concerns around student loan debt by providing support to tribal students beyond other scholarships and grants, says Helen Faith, director of the Office of Student Financial Aid. And it’s especially unique because it isn’t based on financial need.

This support can have a profound impact on a student’s life, as the estimated annual cost of attendance for in-state students at UW-Madison is $28,900. For medical and law degree programs, this ranges between $35,000 and $42,000.

At this time, it’s difficult to estimate how many students will qualify for the initiative, Faith says. “UW-Madison is situated on tribal lands [and] those lands were taken forcibly,” Faith says. “I think it’s important that we extend the most basic ability for students to attend UW-Madison who are from those Native [tribal] nations whose lands were taken from them.”

University leaders developed this initiative with input from the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council, a group of leaders from each of the American Indian tribes in Wisconsin that serves as a forum for discussing and resolving issues that require intertribal collaboration.

Ongoing meetings took place between the 11 tribal nations and Jennifer Mnookin, JD, PhD, chancellor of UW-Madison, to discuss topics like access to education and resources, continuation of support, and student retention and outcomes, says Shannon Holsey, president of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians and Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council chairperson.

While there is still work to be done, this program is a move beyond land acknowledgement and reparation, she says. “The truth is, if it were not for the loss of land by Indigenous peoples, American colleges and universities would not exist,” Holsey says. “Institutions must challenge themselves to move away from encouraging acts that are performative, into commitments of transformative change. I believe Chancellor Mnookin’s commitment, and [that of ] the Board of Regents, to our students is the beginning of that.”

For students to be successful, tuition and financial assistance is not the sole solution; many systems of change need to happen, Holsey adds.

“Colleges and universities, especially those that benefited from the first Morrill Act of 1862, must acknowledge and represent the true history of dispossession as a form of rematriation, by giving stewardship back to Indigenous communities.”