A new grant program aims to help members of the Oregon’s nine federally recognized Native American tribes with the cost of attending college next academic year.

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The Oregon Tribal Student Grant program will cover attendance costs, beyond what federal and state financial aid cover, at eligible colleges or universities in the state. Students can use the money for tuition, and they can also apply it to other expenses like housing, books and transportation.

The Oregon Legislature approved the program for one year. Already, more than 500 people have started applications, according to the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission. State officials encourage students to apply for the grant by Aug. 1, which is the “priority deadline.”

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Tribal representatives including Sandy Henry, the education director for the Cow Creek Band of the Umpqua Tribe of Indians, were involved in the rule-making process for the grant program. She told OPB’s “Think Out Loud” that the tribal student grants will go a long way toward breaking down some of the barriers that keep Native American students from accessing higher education.

“We need to remember that a lot of these folks, these Native American students, are first-generation college students. And so there is some socioeconomic factors that create some barriers to even starting the process,” she said. “Being able to talk with our students — returning or first-time students — and saying, ‘I’ve got this great program that’s gonna take a lot of pressure off you and your family and it’s going to allow you to focus primarily on having a successful academic year,’ that’s a huge gift to give our students right off the bat.”

The grant program could allow students to go to school full time and focus on their education when they would otherwise hold down a job while going to school, Henry said.

Ben Cannon, executive director for Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission, said he’ll be pushing hard for state lawmakers to fund the program beyond the coming school year.

“This investment on the part of the state of Oregon for 2022-23 in our tribal students is remarkable, and the governor and Legislature deserve great credit for what they have done to set aside $19 million dollars for the upcoming year,” he said. “We have to sustain this program for students who are, I think, receiving an implied commitment on the part of the state, and the state should not break that promise to those students.”

Henry said she is hopeful about the continuation of the program and the long-term impacts it could have.

“Tribal folks think in terms of generations. What kind of impact are we making that’s going to affect people seven generations down the road? I’m hoping this is that kind of program,” she said.

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