Alaska Native students from all around Alaska are now able to attend the state's only tribal college tuition-free.
"We looked at some of the obstacles that students — especially those in rural Alaska — have in going to college and money was one of them," said Janelle Everett, Iḷisaġvik College's director of recruitment. "The North Slope is fortunate in that there is wealth here, but that wealth is not necessarily in other parts of the state. People may not have the finances to attend college."
Iḷisaġvik recently announced that starting next semester, Native students who are over the age of 18 will be able to apply for a tuition waiver to attend both distance learning and campus-based classes.
"We Inupiat believe in sharing our good fortune. We have been fortunate enough on the North Slope to have an accredited college in a Native community where Native students can feel comfortable and supported as they pursue their post-secondary education," said college president Pearl Brower in the announcement. "As the only tribal college in Alaska, I feel it is very important that we throw our net as widely as possible so that all Alaska Native students have a chance to enhance their future by acquiring the knowledge that comes with higher education."
The waiver covers only tuition, but students using the waiver must also apply for both federal student aid and some type of scholarship, which college administrators hope will help cover the rest of their costs.
"So, we're hoping that this is a stepping stone, but it's also a great way for students to have less of a financial burden going to college," said Iḷisaġvik registrar Meghan Galligan.
Each credit at the college costs $145, so a full-time student taking a regular class load would save about $3,500 a year with the waiver.
Everett hopes the tuition waiver will not only ease the burden for students, but also help raise Iḷisaġvik's profile in other parts of the state. Students at the college are predominantly locals who have grown up or lived on the North Slope.
"Our students know that they have access. If you look at students from other parts of rural Alaska, they did not know that we exist, but they're learning about us," said Everett. "The idea of going from a really small village to one of the urban centers for an education can be daunting and overwhelming for them. A lot of students graduate and think they have no option for where to go to school, so they don't go for higher education or training. With the tuition waiver, we hope it will allow them to get out of the community, and if they want higher education, to come to us, because we are a small community."
Galligan echoed her words, saying because it's a tribal college in a small community, it might be a more familiar environment for Native students.
"Because we're a small college, we're more able to help students through the challenges and obstacles that colleges put on the students," she said. "Other larger universities don't necessarily have that fortunate capability because they have larger class sizes, more students to faculty, things like that. We have a lot more faculty to students, so we're able to help them a little bit more. We want to help them succeed."
Everett said she's fielded calls from prospective students who say they want to get more education, but are scared of going to college because they don't know what steps they need to take to prepare. That's OK, she said. Making the call to ask for help is the first step.
She'd like to see a more diverse student body bring with it the potential to broaden all of the students' horizons.
"I think the most important thing is that, because Alaska is so large, we have different Alaska Native regions and with them come different cultures. So, when our students come, they're bringing a piece of their culture with them. That allows our students who are from the North Slope to learn about other Alaska Native regions and cultures. It's a sharing," said Everett. "I think, in that sense, we are hopefully allowing our students to create lifelong friendships and also an exchange of cultures."
If students are accepted into the waiver program, which will happen if they meet the requirements, they have to begin and continue a program of study, make a C grade average and successfully complete two-thirds of their classes to qualify for the waiver in following semesters.
The waiver is only necessary for credit classes, Galligan noted, which do not include CEU courses that are non-credit. However, there are many educational tracks that are entirely credit-based, she said.
"I want Alaskans to take (the) jobs (here). I want Alaskans to be educated and trained, whether it's in accounting or heavy equipment operation, to take jobs," Everett said. "Then, we can fill other jobs with people from Outside, but Alaskans and Alaska residents should be the people to get those jobs for the future of the state."