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SOU weighs in-state tuition for tribal members

The school changes course after Portland State and Oregon State issue new tuition policy for Natives
Kayla Dumore, a member of the Klamath Modoc Tribe and co-chair of the SOU Native American Student Union, on campus in Ashland Friday. [Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune]

Following announcements by other public universities in the state, Southern Oregon University is considering whether to provide in-state tuition to all Native Americans, no matter which federally recognized tribe they belong to — though no decision has been made.

Joe Mosley, SOU director of community and media relations, informed the newspaper of the university's change in thinking Thursday, after previously saying it would not offer the in-state rate to Native Americans this coming academic year.

“SOU has deep respect for the cultural heritage that our Native American students embody. The university also is committed to providing opportunities for all first-generation and other nontraditional students to pursue their academic dreams,” Mosley said in a prepared statement.

“We are giving thoughtful consideration to the possibility of extending the benefit of in-state tuition rates to the enrolled members of any Native American tribe and intend to release a public announcement once the decision is made.”

The comments from SOU came after Portland State University and Oregon State University said they would offer, beginning 2022-23, in-state tuition rates to all Native Americans regardless of which tribe throughout the U.S. they identify with.

An administrative rule on the books says Native Americans going to school in Oregon can reap the benefits of residential tuition even if they live out of state on the condition they come from a tribe that originated on land now considered Oregon. Senate Bill 312, passed in 2019, allowed any Native American, regardless of tribe, to receive residential tuition as long as they graduated from an Oregon high school program, including schools on Indian reservations.

Earlier this year, the Legislature set aside $3.4 million to help cover the average cost of attendance for any Native American college student “after all federal and state grants/scholarships have been applied.”

The state’s Higher Education Coordinating Committee, which oversees the grant program, praised Portland State for its decision.

“As we roll out the state Oregon Tribal Student Grant program and other state equity strategies, it is exciting to see Oregon public universities prioritizing equity and opportunity in higher education in new ways, and we strongly encourage Oregon public universities to adopt bold strategies ... to expand college access and success for historically undeserved populations,” Ben Cannon, the executive director of HECC, said in a prepared statement to the Mail Tribune.

At SOU, 251 students identified as being American Indian or Alaska Native last fall, and of those, 167 were from Oregon.

Mosley cautioned the figures are “far less than rock solid,” because these students are not necessarily enrolled members of federally recognized tribes, and only 11 students chose the option of identifying as affiliated with any of Oregon's nine federally recognized tribes. Mosley also said the figures are a reflection of the students’ self-reported ethnicity tags and are nonexclusive, meaning students can choose multiple, single or no ethnicity.

Kayla Dumore, a native Oregonian, member of the Klamath Modoc Tribe and co-chair of the SOU Native American Student Union, said she was disappointed in SOU’s initial stance of not offering all Native Americans in-state tuition, saying the response “rubs me the wrong way.”

“While SOU does and is creating really amazing relationships with the nine tribes in Oregon, I also think it’s very important to recognize the tribes outside of Oregon, because they are just as important,” Dumore said. “Because we are a university that serves a wide range of students, it’s important to acknowledge the students that come from outside of Oregon, as well.”

If SOU does allow all federally recognized tribal students the opportunity to attend the university at the in-state tuition rate, it would be “absolutely a necessary next step toward honoring Indigenous peoples,” said Dumore. That next step would follow what SOU did in the fall, when it unveiled a Land Acknowledgment, read before university events and meetings.

“I think SOU’s Land Acknowledgment was absolutely a wonderful first step and a great stepping stone,” Dumore said. “If (in-state tuition for Natives) is something that SOU does implement, I think that would be a wonderful second step that will eventually lead us down a path to honoring our tribal sovereignty and Indigenous people of the U.S.”

When she heard SOU is discussing the tuition policy change, Dumore noted she is weary of such talk.

“I have heard that phrase many times from a number of people. I have learned to not get my hopes up until change is implemented,” she wrote in an email. “That being said, I do feel that the discussion does open the door for our Indigenous students to be heard in a very impactful way, and I hope that the administration takes our voices into consideration while finalizing this decision.”

Dumore noted that the cost of receiving a higher education is a challenge for her people, though she noted she comes from a “privileged background” and is not struggling to pay for college.

“It is absolutely an uphill climb trying to get a higher education as an Indigenous person because you have ... stigmas that have been around for, god, centuries, that we are uneducated, drunken, dirty people that can’t get through high school,” Dumore said.

“That’s a stigma that, when it’s shown to younger students, it's really discouraging to even think about coming into higher education. It makes it incredibly difficult to reach out for loans … or find a place, even.”

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.