Tuition at the University of California soon may be free for American Indian and Alaskan Native (AIAN) students who are California residents. The UC Native American Opportunity Plan, announced in April by University of California president Michael Drake, begins in fall 2022 with tuition assistance funded through existing state and institutional aid programs. The plan could encourage California AIAN students to enroll in greater numbers, which may improve representation at UC.
For Native American students, the major barriers to UC access often emerge during high school. A large gap exists in preparation among high school completers by race. According to recent data from the California Department of Education, only 31% of Native American students who complete high school have met A–G requirements—minimum coursework necessary to be eligible for UC and CSU—whereas 54% of white students have done so.
Among UC/CSU-eligible students, Native American students enroll in any college at lower rates than other student groups: 10 percentage points lower than white students, 13 points lower than Asian students, and 4 points and 1 point lower than African American and Latino students, respectively. Among lower-income students, the gap is 18 percentage points (68.6% Native American vs. 79.6% white).
When we examine enrollment in the UC system among those meeting A–G requirements, we find that Native American students enroll at similar rates as white students. That is, among 2017–18 UC/CSU-eligible students, 11.0% of Native American students and 11.3% of white students enrolled within 12 months of graduating high school. For lower-income students, the results were the same: 11.0% of Native American and 10.6% of white students who met A–G requirements enrolled in a UC.
The UC Native American Opportunity Plan aims to better support Native American students, improve access, and “recognize and acknowledge historical wrongs endured by Native Americans.” The program is expected to serve about 500 undergraduate students and 160 graduate students in its first year, or about 44% of the current AIAN student population at UC.
The plan will be a relatively small investment from the University of California system. AIAN students represent less than 1% of total enrollment, and only students who are members of a federally recognized tribe are eligible—although a $2.5 million scholarship provided by the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria could expand access to other non–federally recognized tribes in coming years.
Furthermore, federal, state, and institutional aid likely already covers tuition costs for many AIAN students. About 45% of AIAN students receive Pell Grants, and the UC Blue and Gold financial aid program covers tuition for students whose families earn less than $80,000 per year.
The UC Native American Opportunity Plan may encourage more AIAN students to apply to UC but college preparation rates must improve dramatically to open the door more widely beyond its 1% enrollment.