Utah’s Anti-DEI Bill Won’t Revoke Tuition Waiver for Indigenous Students

Some worried that four public universities in Utah may be forced to suspend their tuition waiver programs for Native American and Indigenous students due to anti-DEI legislation.
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Published on February 9, 2024
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  • A recently passed bill in Utah targets DEI programs at public colleges and universities.
  • Groups worried the new law may force schools to end tuition waivers for Native American students.
  • The bill's sponsor said the soon-to-be law shouldn't affect waiver programs.
  • Most colleges and universities in the state with waiver programs said they will continue to offer the scholarship.

Tuition waivers for college students from tribal nations in Utah seemingly won't be in jeopardy, despite recent speculation.

Currently, college students who are members of any of Utah's eight sovereign tribal nations can attend four of the state's public colleges and universities for free thanks to individual tuition waiver programs at each institution.

H.B. 261, a proposal from state Rep. Katy Hall and state Sen. Keith Grover, will prohibit scholarships that consider an individual's personal identity characteristics, which had many worried the bill would outlaw existing waiver programs.

Grover told The Salt Lake Tribune in late January that this may be an unintended consequence of the bill aimed at public institutions' diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs.

However, he has since walked back those concerns. He told BestColleges that because the waiver programs are dependent on a student belonging to a recognized tribe, the scholarships won't be outlawed by his recently passed legislation.

Native American tribes are sovereign nations and federally recognized political entities, and, therefore, not subject to H.B. 261, Grover told BestColleges. I expect no legal action as there are no grounds.

At least three of the state's four public colleges and universities did not plan on suspending their waiver programs as a response to the soon-to-be law anyway.

A late amendment stipulated that the proposal would only outlaw scholarships focused on personal identity characteristics that used public funds. H.B. 261 will not impact private scholarship programs, meaning the University of Utah's tuition waiver for Indigenous students wouldn't be affected.

That left similar programs at three other institutions in the state in doubt:

Representatives from Utah State University and Salt Lake Community College told BestColleges that they would not revoke their tuition waiver scholarships. Both institutions stated that because their scholarships are based on membership within a federally recognized tribe, they will continue to waive tuition for eligible students.

A representative from Southern Utah University said the institution is still reviewing the bill since it just recently passed.

Cheryl Crazy Bull, president and CEO of the American Indian College Fund, told BestColleges that tuition waiver programs for Native students are relatively new, so there haven't been any studies to measure how impactful they are. However, she said she hears from students who say that while waivers are helpful, they are insufficient if they can't cover living expenses outside of tuition and fees.

Still, Crazy Bull continues to advocate for more support for Native American students, including tuition waivers, in the wake of a recent enrollment downturn.

Undergraduate American Indian and Alaska Native enrollment dropped 8% from 2019-2021, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. This disrupted a 15-year positive trend, Crazy Bull said.

These provisions like tuition waivers are really important in reversing that, she said.

Additionally, Native American students often need more financial assistance while in college than their peers, she said.

An American Indian College Fund report found that two-thirds of Indigenous college students are expected to contribute funds to their families while enrolled in college. Seventy-two percent of study participants reported running out of money at least once in the last six months.

Tuition waivers may not meet all Indigenous student needs, she said, but they at least lower the amount of student loans these students need to earn their degrees.

I'm someone who believes that we need to do reparative and restorative work in this country, Crazy Bull said. We're really just asking states to do work to help Native people get back to a state of living.

H.B. 261 will go into effect on July 1, 2024.