BIE Schools & Free Education for Native Americans
There is a misconception about Native Americans getting a free ride through college. Many people misunderstand the term “Native American Scholarships” and think that perhaps these are actually ways that Native Americans get free tuition. In addition, many people believe the U.S. government pays for college for Native Americans.
Well, let me tell you, this could not be further from the truth. Yes, there are large scholarships, but being awarded a four-year award such as the Gates Millennium Scholarship is no easy task. And, competition for scholarships is heavy. Native Americans, just as any other ethnic group, must submit the same applications and write numerous essays and compete academically, and even then may not be selected to receive scholarship funding.
Perhaps the misconception around free college education for Native Americans comes, in part, from the BIE schools on many reservations. These federally funded schools are part of the treaties the United States made with Native American tribes in the promise of an Anglo education. On the surface, this sounds good yet has nothing to do with college. What’s more, many BIE schools struggle with underfunding, high staff turnover and physical disrepair, and when the government decides to make budget cuts, BIE school budgets are often affected.
In fact, “Funding for replacement schools, improvements and repairs to BIE schools has fallen by 76 percent over the past decade,” creating a perfect storm for Native American children to fall behind their peers at public schools. It is a disgrace to further slow childhood learning for innocent and underprivileged Native children. “Many schools serve some of the nation’s poorest and most remote communities. Test scores for the [BIE] system’s 49,079 students lag those of both Indians and non-Indians in public schools.”
Add to this the physical discomfort experienced by students at some of the BIE schools that lack adequate facilities to keep students warm and sheltered from the elements – this is no exaggeration. In northern Minnesota conditions at a BIE school are such that it has “a roof that caves in under heavy snowfall, a failing heating system that has many students wearing coats and blankets in class as soon as the weather turns and a sewer system that backs up during extreme cold — all adding to the discomforts and indignities of an aging, metal ‘pole barn’ that has to be evacuated when wind gusts top 40 miles per hour.”
So, taking all of this into account… schools that are physically decrepit, understaffed and underfunded; stiff competition for scholarships and the poverty associated with living on a rural and remote reservation where Indian reservation unemployment can reach up to 80% — well, it is inspiring, to say the least, that Native Americans do attend and thrive in college. But, their time in college is definitely not free – they pay the financial cost, the emotional cost, and the same uncertainty about employment after school that many Americans face.