Indianz.Com > News > ‘We got lied to’: Native students find flaws in free tuition program
MSU Denver Powwow
The first annual Auraria Pow Wow, presented by the Native and Indigenous Student Alliance, took place at MSU Denver in Denver, Colorado, on May 7, 2022. Photo by Josh Geurink / MSU Denver
‘We got lied to’
Native students find out ‘free tuition’ program isn’t free
Tuesday, September 6, 2022

An Oglala Lakota woman is calling upon leaders at her university in Denver to fulfill a promise they made last spring.

Celeste Terry, a 30-year-old student of applied indigenous law and science at Metropolitan State University, said she and other Native students at the university were promised free tuition and fees by the university’s top leader.

MSU Denver President Janine Davidson made the announcement on May 6, during the university’s first ever Native graduation ceremony.

Terry said Davidson never informed the Native student organizers of the ceremony that she would be making the announcement and everyone in attendance was surprised when the president arrived with a news crew.

“We will begin to offer free tuition and fees for Colorado residents who are registered with any of the 574 federal recognized Native nations across the country,” Davidson said during the event, eliciting applause and war whoops from those gathered.

CBS Colorado: Metro State University Offering Free Tuition To Indigenous People

In a news story about the event posted by CBS Colorado, Davidson said the university wanted to address historical injustices committed against Native people.

“There is a huge history of wrongs associated with Native and indigenous peoples in this country, and we just really feel like it’s important for MSU Denver to really be doing our part to right those wrongs,” she said.

But three months later, the university has yet to fulfill its promise of free tuition and fees for Native students, Terry said.

“We got lied to essentially, but the university won’t own it,” Terry told Indianz.Com. “They won’t make a public apology.”

She said many Native students assumed the university would do precisely what President Davidson promised — provide Native students with free tuition and fees — and then refund to those students any other financial aid, including grants and loans, they might have received to attend the school.

Instead, Terry said, the university recently informed Native students that the program, which it is calling the Indigenous and Native Peoples’ Grant, is a “last dollar” grant. That means the program only provides financial support when a Native student has unpaid tuition and fees that aren’t covered by other forms of financial aid.

And it means that unless a Native student has enough grants and loans to cover their tuition and fees and provide extra funds to them for living expenses, they won’t receive a refund.

Andrea Smith, associate vice president of strategic communications for MSU Denver, said the university never planned to erase all tuition and fees for Native students. Rather, she said, the university planned to ensure no Native students would have to pay tuition or fees starting this fall.

“While our official written announcement clearly explained this commitment was made possible by a combination of federal, state and institutional grants, the in-person announcement at our Native and Indigenous Graduation Celebration did not outline the specific details about the funding mechanisms,” Smith said. “Students who only listened to the headline announcement, presumed they would receive additional funds back.”

She said university leaders met with affected students to better explain the program, hear their concerns and connect them with additional resources. MSU Denver grant administrators have since contacted each recipient individually to answer any remaining questions, Smith said.

“We recognize the history of injustice in indigenous or Native communities and that is part of why we created this program,” she said.

She said by only paying unpaid tuition and fees not covered by other forms of financial aid, the university will be better able to expand eligibility for the program to Coloradans with ties to any Native nation, not just those with historical ties to the state.

She said MSU Denver also has hired a full-time program coordinator to oversee the Indigenous and Native Peoples’ Grant, support recipients of program funding and create a Native community advisory group.

And two weeks ago, President Davidson met with leaders of the Native Indigenous Student Alliance, including Terry, to discuss their vision for a “diverse, respectful and inclusive university community.”

“She looks forward to working with these amazing student leaders to realize these shared goals,” Smith said of Davidson.

But Terry said news that the program doesn’t actually erase tuition and fees for Native students has caused many problems for Native students who readjusted their finances thinking they would be receiving financial aid refunds this fall.

Those students include Terry, who survived a car accident in April after she crashed into a pickup truck that had been abandoned in the middle of the road.

She said she was forced to undergo knee surgery and the costs from her medical bills nearly caused her to lose everything. But believing she would be receiving a financial aid refund in the fall, she paid those bills and even hired a lawyer in an attempt to recover her medical costs from the person who abandoned their pickup in the road.

“I was like, ‘I can afford to do this. In the fall, at least I can get this money back. That way I can pay my housing, food, afford the new car,’” she said.

Some Native students are even worse off and face losing their housing after assuming they would receive refunds this fall, Terry said. And she criticized the university for failing to inform Native students about the details of the grant program until nearly the start of the fall semester.

The university didn’t even publish an informational page on its website about the program until August 24, the day university leaders met with Native students, including Terry.

She said she was frustrated by the patronizing manner in which university leaders spoke to the Native students during that meeting, describing a statement made by President Davidson at the start of the meeting as “white saviorism.”

“The first thing she tells us is, ‘You’re lucky we’re even considering helping Native students. Most universities don’t. Basically you should be happy with that effort. The intentions were good,’” Terry said, quoting Davidson.

And while Terry is glad MSU Denver is working to better support Native students, she said believes the university has more work to do to begin treating its Native students honorably and respectfully. And she said she wishes the university had simply been honest from the start about the program not providing free tuition and fees for Native students.

“I just wish they would have told us that when they made the announcement so people didn’t adjust their finances back in May,” she said.

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