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Hundreds of students at tribal colleges and universities who need financial aid are waiting until the last minute to ask for it, according to report released this week from the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin.

Among entering tribal college students surveyed in 2017 and 2018, 31 percent applied for financial assistance less than a month before classes began and 14 percent applied after classes started. And these students need the money.

Seventy-eight percent receive Pell grants, a federal grant reserved for students with the greatest financial need. And 90 percent of entering tribal college students ask for financial assistance, according to the report.

I spoke with Cheryl Crazy Bull, president and CEO of the American Indian College Fund, about why students aren’t asking for financial aid sooner and about the barriers many students from tribal communities face when pursuing higher education.

Many of those students may be the first in their families to attend college and may have limited reference points about how applying for financial aid works, said Crazy Bull, who wrote the forward for the report.

Related: How a struggling school for native Americans double is graduation rate

“A lot of students don’t have access to a college-going experience that tells them ‘Here’s how you apply to college. Here’s all the different things you have to do. You have to apply for financial aid,’” she said.

“Financial aid requires you to be able to document family income, and I think that’s a big barrier for a lot of students. So I think they delay applying for financial aid because they’re not sure how to address that barrier.” 

Filling out financial aid forms can be overwhelming for just about anyone, but in tribal communities the process can appear especially daunting. Many students don’t live in a nuclear family structure and that can complicate applying for aid, Crazy Bull said.

“They may not live with their parents; they may not have an official guardian relationship with whoever they’re living with,” she said. “Financial aid requires you to be able to document family income, and I think that’s a big barrier for a lot of students. So I think they delay applying for financial aid because they’re not sure how to address that barrier.”

The Department of Education says there are 32 fully accredited tribal institutions. (Not everyone agrees with this count; the American Indian Higher Education Commission says there are 34, along with one school that is a candidate for accreditation.) All have open enrollment, and that flexible enrollment cycle may not prompt students to move quickly on asking for money.

“They don’t have that experience that a lot of other students have, of a drive to have you apply for college your senior year,” Crazy Bull said. She added that failing to apply for aid well before classes start can lock students out of scholarship opportunities, which frequently close before the semester begins.

The report also found that tribal college students are less likely to pay for their education with student loans – and that might not be a bad thing.

According to the report, “tribal college students report being more likely to use grants and scholarships to pay for their college expenses, and less likely to use their own income, income from family, or loans.”

It does not calculate, however, how much money is left on the table when students don’t apply for grants and scholarships in a timely way.

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