Native American students get free tuition to attend the UC. Why it isn’t enough.


For high school senior Robert McConnell, an acceptance to UC Santa Cruz would all but guarantee his attendance. That’s because, as a member of a federally recognized tribe, McConnell would not have to pay tuition to pursue his dreams of studying marine biology under the UC Native American Opportunity Plan

Launched in 2021, the University of California plan offers free tuition to any member of a federal or state-recognized Native American tribe who can provide proof of membership. McConnell, a member of the Hoopa Valley Tribe in rural Northern California, said an acceptance will grant him opportunities that aren’t available in his unincorporated tribal community. 

Over 85% of the residents in Hoopa identify as Native American or Alaskan Native. Leaving behind cultural and family support to attend far away institutions can be extremely difficult for Native students. The nearest UC campus to Hoopa is Davis, 200 miles away.

For the low-to-middle income Native students of Hoopa, an opportunity to attend UC is invaluable. The reported monthly income for families in the small territory is just over $55,000 a year — qualifying many for federal and state tuition assistance. 

“It’s really easy to get stuck here in Hoopa Valley, in this little community,” McConnell said. Out of the nearly 3,000 residents of Hoopa, only about 16% have a bachelor’s degree.

But there is a caveat in the system’s opportunity plan — funds can only go toward paying tuition, not the non-tuition related expenses like housing and transportation that constitute the bulk of expenses for California students. Paying out of pocket for rent in expensive areas is especially daunting for prospective students like McConnell, who must relocate to pursue his education.