This Fund Has Backed Native American Students for 50 Years. Despite Strides, It Faces Huge, Unmet Need

Native Forward Scholar and University of New Mexico graduate Chenoa Scippio, of the Santa Clara Pueblo and Navajo Nations. photo credit: Native Forward

This evening, the Native Forward Scholars Fund will celebrate its 50th anniversary at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Technically 53 years old (anniversary festivities were postponed because of the pandemic), Native Forward is the oldest and largest direct scholarship provider to Native American students in the U.S., supporting undergraduate, graduate and professional-level students. Since its founding, it has provided financial aid for over 20,000 students from over 500 tribes in all 50 states.

You’ve probably heard of some of the organization’s alumni. At today’s gala, Native Forward will honor Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to serve as cabinet secretary; Kim Teehee, Cherokee Nation Delegate to the U.S. Congress; and advocate Professor Henrietta Mann. All three were recipients of scholarships from Native Forward. Native Forward cofounders Robert Bennett (1912-2002) and John Rainer (1942-2011) will also be honored. The five honorees will be inducted into the organization’s Hall of Fame. 

Native Forward (formerly the American Indian Graduate Center) draws funding from a number of public and private sources, including the U.S. government, Native American tribes and corporate funders such as Wells Fargo, Nike, Accenture and Morgan Stanley. Its philanthropic funders include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Murdock Charitable Trust and the Johnson Scholarship Foundation. Native Forward was also an early beneficiary of MacKenzie Scott, receiving a $20 million gift from the mega-donor in 2020 that doubled its budget.

Native Forward is celebrating an impressive first half-century and honoring some stellar alumni, but the organization still faces a daunting challenge: It’s not able to meet the financial needs of the many young Native Americans who want to go to college — not even close. In fact, even with Scott’s gift, the organization is able to fund just 14% of its applicants, leaving a total unmet need of $40 million. 

“Fourteen percent — that means we are turning away really qualified students,” said Native Forward CEO Angelique Albert. “We have students with a grade point of 4.0 calling and saying, ‘Why didn’t I get funding?’ And we have to turn them away. Even when students receive scholarships, they face other costs. We have students who I know personally who are living out of their cars so they can go to college because they can’t afford both housing and tuition.” 

“Can’t afford that” 

A report released last year by National Native Scholarship Providers, a collaboration of Native scholarship organizations including Native Forward, underscores how precarious life is for many Native college students. Sixteen percent of students surveyed said they experienced homelessness during college, for example. And 72% reported running out of money at least once in the last six months. Many support their families while in college: Sixty-seven percent said they were expected to help with family bills. 

As one student told researchers, reflecting on his college experience, “I had negative money. I had some credit card debts and I drove this car that was made out of 10 other cars, it was 10 different colors and all of that. I had nothing. And I think a lot of people in that situation say ‘Forget it. I can’t go to college. Can’t afford that.’”

Native Forward Scholars Fund doesn’t just provide scholarships; it also works to help students overcome the financial, emotional and psychological hurdles that cause many to drop out before graduation. College completion is an issue for Native and non-Native students alike: according to one expert, more than a million students drop out of college every year, and three-quarters of college dropouts are first-generation college students. According to the National Native Scholarship Providers report, just 36% of Indigenous students who entered four-year colleges and universities in 2014 completed their academic degrees in six years, compared to 60% of all other students.

Native Forward has worked to address this issue for a number of years. With support from the Gates Millennium Scholars Program (funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation), Native Forward developed a program of wraparound services for college students to help them stay in school. Until the organization received the $20 million gift from MacKenzie Scott, however, it wasn’t able to provide those services for all the students who needed it. 

“We’ve developed a model of best practices, and we know how to help students persist and graduate,” Albert said. “But for many years, we didn’t have the money to offer that to every student. With MacKenzie Scott’s funding, we’ve hired the staff to be able to call students and check in. A lot of times what we’re seeing is that it’s a small thing, like, ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t know how to navigate this issue with the financial aid office.’ So we call and we help them navigate it. Or sometimes, it’s emergency funding, like, ‘I just need $500 to get my car fixed and all is right with the world.’ We have now grown our staff to be able to provide those services to every single student.” 

It’s become a cliche to say that gifts from MacKenzie Scott are transformative for the nonprofits that receive them, but that’s undeniably true when it comes to Native Forward, which was in the first cohort of 116 nonprofits that Scott funded back in 2020. Scott has funded a number of other Native American organizations as well, including the Seventh Generation Fund for Indigenous Peoples, the Trust for Indigenous Culture and Health, the Native Arts and Culture Foundation and Native Americans in Philanthropy. Higher education is clearly a priority: The American Indian College Fund and the American Indian Higher Education Consortium have both received gifts, according to Scott’s Yield Giving grants database

Albert particularly appreciates the unrestricted nature of Scott’s philanthropy. “It’s probably the most significant gift that our organization has ever received and one reason is because of its unrestricted nature,” she said. “We are the subject matter experts when it comes to serving Native students in higher education and helping them persist, helping them to graduate. To have the freedom to direct those funds in a way that impacted our students the most and allowed us to grow the organization in a way that made sense for us — that was truly transformative.” 

Albert hopes more funders will adopt this trust-based approach; she also hopes more will prioritize organizations with Native leadership. “Native-led nonprofits understand the nuances of working in tribal communities and are subject matter experts,” she said. “I think it’s critically important to do the research to reach out to Native-led nonprofits — there are so many of us — and to lean on us for support and guidance.”

Progress — but not enough 

On the eve of Native Forward’s anniversary gala, Angelique Albert talked with pride about the leaders her organization has provided scholarships for over the years. “I’m blown away by all Deb Haaland and our other honorees have accomplished, and so many of our other alumni,” she said, pointing to Cynthia Chavez Lamar, director of the National Museum of the American Indian, and Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians. “There has been a real racial awakening, with people realizing we are not stereotypes; we’re creating visibility and having true representation at many different levels. Being able to tell our own stories and having those role models for other people to see is pretty powerful.”

Still, Albert is frustrated that her organization can’t help more young people. She points out that much has changed in the 50-plus years since Native Forward was founded. When Robert Bennett, who served as the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, and John Rainer, executive director of National Congress of American Indians, cofounded the organization, for example, there were no scholarships available for Native students, and many young people didn’t even bother to dream about a college education. 

Still, too much remains the same. “When Bob Bennett was going through law school, he was making $1,800 a year,” Albert said. “He was supporting a wife and three boys. And we see the same thing 53 years later — our students are trying to support families and go to college. And they’re doing it; they’re doing it and they’re persevering and doing phenomenal things. But there’s still not enough support.”