There are about 120 Native students at the University of Utah. Soon, most of them will be able to attend for free.

In a landmark move, the flagship school is planning to provide scholarships to cover tuition and fees for those enrolled in a tribe in the state.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Members of the Ute Indian Tribe perform during halftime at a University of Utah football game on Oct. 10, 2021. The school has an agreement with the tribe to provide scholarships but will now move toward covering tuition and fees for all Indigenous students enrolled in a tribe in the state.

In a major move to support Indigenous students, any enrolled member of a tribe in the state will soon be able to attend the University of Utah for free — with all tuition and fees covered.

The announcement from U. President Taylor Randall came Thursday during Utah’s annual Native American Summit, which was held this year on the university’s campus. Randall told the crowd, filled with members from all eight sovereign tribal nations within Utah, that he’s been working on the plan for months now.

He intends for the program to start this coming spring through a series of new scholarships.

“This is a vital part of committing the U. to deliver a transformative educational experience to communities across Utah,” Randall said.

A university spokesperson said details of how the initiative will work are still being discussed with tribal leaders. But the idea is that any student formally enrolled in one of the eight federally recognized tribes in Utah will attend the state’s flagship school with full scholarship support.

Those tribes are: the Northwestern Band of Shoshone Nation, the Confederated Tribes of Goshute, the Skull Valley Band of Goshute, the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, the San Juan Southern Paiute Tribe, the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and the Navajo Nation.

What it means to be an enrolled member varies by tribe, with leaders basing those decisions on different measures of lineage.

At the U., for this coming fall semester, there are 128 students who have identified as American Indian. The school’s online data doesn’t delineate whether those individuals are members of tribes in Utah and it doesn’t break them down by tribe.

For instance, it’s unclear how many students are members of the Ute Indian Tribe, which the U. has a longstanding agreement with to use the “Utes” names and imagery.

But American Indians are the smallest ethnic group on campus of the 34,000 students there. They make up about 0.4% of the student body. That’s a smaller proportion than Indigenous people in the state, overall, who make up 1.6% of the population, according to U.S. Census estimates.

Some universities across the country already offer similar financial support — such as all state colleges and universities in Montana, including University of Montana, Montana State and Montana Tech University.

Other nationwide schools also offer tuition waivers or other levels of assistance. Starting this fall, the University of California system will waive tuition and fees for all in-state students who are members of federally recognized tribes.

In Utah, Dustin Jansen, director of the state Division of Indian Affairs and a University of Utah law school alumnus, said he hopes the financial support will mean more Native students from all tribes in the state will go to the U.

“These scholarships are really going to help out a lot of Native students,” he said. “A lot are currently first-generation college students. They don’t necessarily have family that can pay for them to go to college, so having this type of financial help will really mean a lot.”

Jansen acknowledged that the cost isn’t the only barrier to Indigenous students accessing higher education. The support, he said, must also start sooner, in high school and before.

“You really need to start early when you’re going to prep students to go to college,” he added.

He said universities, including the U., are working on programs to get younger students on campus earlier, including STEM camps and a storytelling effort the U. hosted for Ute kids this summer.

But there needs to be more concerted effort in education to buoy Native students and help them achieve, he said. And once they are at the university, there should be programming to support them with housing and networking so they are empowered to finish their degrees.

The scholarships, Jansen said, “are a good first step.”

The U. also recently announced that it is waiving the application fees for Native students, as well as those who are first-time college students. And it has released a land acknowledgement statement that recognizes it sits on “the traditional and ancestral homelands of the Shoshone, Paiute, Goshute, and Ute Tribes.”

Mary Ann Villarreal, the vice president for equity, diversity, and inclusion at the U., said in a statement Thursday that the scholarships are “about more than just obtaining a great education. It is a recognition that our land acknowledgement is a living statement with recognition that we will build new futures together.”

Additionally, the university and the Ute Tribe signed a new agreement in 2020 — which will hold for five years — extending the U.’s use of the “Ute” name with new stipulations.

The school is now required to educate all incoming students about the tribe.

“This agreement renews our shared commitment to building genuine respect and understanding of our tribe’s history,” Luke Duncan, chairman of the Ute Indian Tribal Business Committee, said at the time.

The U. has had a formal agreement with the tribe since 1972. In exchange for allowing the school’s athletics department to use its name and the drum and feather logo, the university has supported scholarships for tribal members and agreed to support those students through graduation.

The school also provides annual financial support to the tribe for K-12 education on the reservation in northeastern Utah. And it holds awareness events on campus about Native American culture and history.

The U. specifically launched the Ute Proud program to showcase those traditions during football and basketball games and gymnastics meets. During those events, members talk about their history and perform before attendees. They also teach fans about inappropriate behaviors — such as wearing sacred regalia or red face paint — that dishonor the tribe and other Native American groups.