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The University of Montana is streamlining the financial aid process for Native students this fall, part of a multi-phase equity project funded by the Gates Foundation.

MISSOULA, Montana — As the University of Montana’s fall semester kicked off last week, Michelle Guzman fell into a familiar pattern. A steady stream of Indigenous students began filtering through her office in the Payne Family Native American Center, where Guzman works as the campus’ director of American Indian Student Services. She did her best to welcome them, pointing some in the direction of school supplies and chatting with others about their initial days adjusting to college life.

This story originally appeared in the Montana Free Press and is used with permission. Follow their coverage of issues that affect Native Americans in Montana.

At one point, Guzman recalled, she arrived at her office to find a new student waiting for her. He’d been referred to Guzman by another department the previous day to discuss his financial aid situation, but told her he’d already grown so frustrated that he’d nearly given up on school and gone home. They went over his information together and discovered a discouraging piece of news: his financial aid fell approximately $2,500 short of what he’d thought it would cover. As the two talked, though, an email notification arrived saying his Pell Grant had just come through.

“He was just so relieved because he had a bill, but in the meantime financial aid was able to get his Pell Grant posted,” Guzman said. “He was like, ‘OK, now I’m ready.’”

In past years, such situations often required calls by Guzman to other departments on campus, with no guarantee of an immediate response during the first hectic weeks of the semester. But this fall, UM rolled out a new financial aid dashboard giving Guzman fast and easy access to individual students’ data. She can check to see when grant or scholarship money is expected to arrive, determine what aid a student has secured, and track other opportunities they might qualify for. She’s also able to identify students who belong to specific groups — for example, freshmen, or students from the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation — so she can alert them via email about upcoming deadlines or additional financial resources.

“It alleviates a lot of stress when they know what’s going on,” she said.

The dashboard that’s helping to alleviate that stress is the first phase of a multi-phase project UM has undertaken in conjunction with educational consulting firm EAB to address pressing needs among Indigenous students. Backed by $500,000 in funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the project’s ultimate goal is to conveniently collect and warehouse data on financial aid and career opportunities in a single location. Associate Vice Provost for Student Success Brian Reed, one of the campus leaders on the project, said the Indigenous student community is one that UM has historically not served well when it comes to data.

“Given the complexity of their financial aid packages, administrators have had a really challenging and difficult time supporting students, making sense of packages, what they have [and] what they can avail themselves of with respect to different sources of aid,” Reed said.

‘PAIN POINTS’

The Data for Student Equity Project, as it’s known, came about as a result of UM’s broader work soliciting EAB to help improve the vast array of data the campus collects from its student population. Pavani Reddy, principal of EAB’s public-private partnerships unit, told Montana Free Press she was contacted by the Gates Foundation last year to develop a data project that would benefit underserved students. When Reddy approached UM about the opportunity, she said, the university immediately expressed a desire to focus the project on Indigenous students.

What struck Reddy about UM was how much administrators already understood about the causes of negative student experiences — namely, that data pertinent to financial aid opportunities for Indigenous students weren’t housed in a single easily accessible location. There are 574 federally recognized tribes in the United States, and depending on an individual student’s tribal affiliation, they might qualify for one or more of a host of different scholarships or government funding options. Reddy said making it clearer what opportunities students have already applied for and the status of those application processes was one of UM’s top priorities for the project.

“It’s not so much that the practitioners were discovering the problem overall, but they were realizing that it’s because they can’t visit all the different systems in which this data resides in order to create a better student experience,” Reddy said, adding that the dashboard should help prevent UM students from accidentally overlooking available aid and ensure they “receive the funding they’re eligible for.”

By gathering feedback from past and present Indigenous students, campus staff and community partners such as Missoula’s All Nations Health Center, Reed said, UM was able to identify a list of “pain points” that have impacted student success at the institution. The input confirmed that improving financial aid service was a leading concern. And according to Reed, it also inspired campus officials to refine policies for one-on-one student interactions and launch a new online portal where all UM students and their families can access news and information about various higher education topics including financial aid. 

According to Reed, that portal — which was developed separately from the EAB project — has had 6,000 subscribers since its Aug. 1 debut. 

“That’s for families campus-wide, but the inspiration was these Native American parents and families saying, ‘You’ve got to tell us more, you’ve got to give us more information,’” Reed said. “We thought that could be beneficial for everybody.”

NEXT STEPS

Now that EAB has helped the university create a one-stop shop for student-specific financial aid data, the project’s next two targets are focused more on post-graduate outcomes. The more immediate target, Reddy said, is to compile data on what students need to do to better position themselves for completing school and entering the workforce. That includes giving students ready access to information about learning opportunities outside the classroom, such as campus-sponsored career development programs. 

One of the project’s loftier goals, Reddy continued, is to develop a dashboard that will map an individual student’s potential path from enrollment to post-graduate employment. The drive there is to show students and their families scenarios specific to certain areas of study, illustrating the associated educational costs and available financial aid options as well as the outlook for specific careers in different areas of the country. Reddy said Indigenous students often express a desire to find a job close to their home communities after graduation.

“The institution wanted to be able to provide a deeper, clearer look at potential employment opportunities that are locally and regionally based, as well as across the country, so that students and families can make a better-informed choice around what the options are and what that looks like from an income and debt standpoint,” Reddy said.

Reed doesn’t see that portion of the project coming to fruition in the near future, at least not by the end of the new academic year. The data necessary to build such a dashboard has “a lot more maturing to do,” he said, but pursuing it could answer critical questions about how students do or do not utilize their UM education.

For Guzman, the recent launch of the project’s first phase will no doubt come in handy in the weeks ahead. It’s a small piece of a larger mission she’s on the front lines of: to continue UM’s forward momentum on recruiting and retaining Indigenous students. According to the Montana Board of Regents, Native enrollment at UM increased nearly 25% last academic year, a reflection of the yearslong positive growth Guzman has seen firsthand. Accomplishing that, Guzman said, is often as simple as pointing someone in the direction of free school supplies or, in the case of the student who nearly left last week, resolving a stressful financial question in minutes rather than days.

“It’s just little things like that make the difference whether someone stays or goes.”

Staff reporter Alex Sakariassen covers the education beat and the state Legislature for Montana Free Press. Alex spent the past decade writing long-form narrative stories that spotlight the people, the politics, and the wilds of Montana. A North Dakota native, he splits his free time between Missoula’s ski slopes and the quiet trout water of the Rocky Mountain Front. Contact Alex by email at asakari[email protected]

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