Diversifying financial aid

Times are tight at the University of Montana, but that hasn’t stopped a group of American Indian students from pushing for a new position in the Financial Aid Office tailored specifically to the needs of their peers. Proponents believe the investment could improve poor retention rates and actually benefit UM in the long run.

“I really believe that with the Native American center, the University of Montana could become the leading destination for Native American students in the nation,” says Amanda Stovall, a UM senior, enrolled member of the Crow tribe and former vice president of the Associated Students of the University of Montana. “But the reality is we’re not retaining students, so we have to change some things.”

Stovall adds that 86 percent of Native undergrads between 2004 and 2011 did not graduate. The financial aid process can be confusing to begin with, but each tribal government has its own scholarship process and deadlines for need assessments, creating additional hurdles for Native students on tuition waivers or higher education scholarships.

“Native students rely on this money when it comes in … and it takes time to navigate this process,” says Zaneta Dale, a UM senior from Montana’s Rocky Boy Indian Reservation. “On top of that, we’re expected to communicate with several entities.”

Stovall began rallying Native students earlier this year and took the issue before ASUM, which approved a resolution April 24 urging the UM administration to create a specialized financial aid position. ASUM President Zach Brown understands that people are “feeling the squeeze” across campus and that “the timing is not ideal for this.” But he adds budget concerns aren’t going to discourage ASUM from approaching Main Hall and “starting the conversation.”

“We had over an hour of public comment, mostly about this issue,” Brown says. “So the Native students came out in force. It’s my third year interacting with ASUM, second year of being a part of it, and it is by far the longest public comment period I’ve ever seen.”

Stovall understands UM is facing a crunch. But, she says, the position could pay for itself if the university retains as few as a dozen additional Native undergrads.

“It costs less to retain a student than it does to recruit a student, and we already know we have retention issues around the Native American population,” Stovall says. “I just feel like it’s the best business decision they could make right now.”

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