Twenty years ago, Native American students earned 0.5 percent of all doctoral degrees. By 2005, that number had slipped to 0.3 percent, even as Native Americans comprise 1.2 percent of the population.

A new grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation hopes to reverse that downward slide. Awarded last month to schools in four states, including Montana, the money will help American Indian students pursue graduate degrees in science, technology, engineering or math fields.

“As other minority groups have increased their numbers in terms of percentages, for Native Americans it’s decreasing,” said Aaron Thomas at the University of Montana. “It’s a part of what we’re trying to work on.“

Thomas, an associate professor of research and the director of Indigenous Research and STEM Education at UM, said the $2.4 million grant will be shared by three schools in the Montana University System, along with the universities of Arizona, Alaska and Purdue.

The program has been in place at UM since 2005, and while Thomas is new to the position, he believes applications by Indians seeking graduate degrees have increased, suggesting small steps toward improvement.

“What we’re trying to do is build that generation of students,” said Thomas. “It’s going to be a long process, but it’s necessary. We need to work backward and start building up those younger generations.“

In 2012, more than 11,760 research doctorates were awarded to U.S. citizens in areas of engineering and science – not including social sciences. Of those, just 48 went to American Indians.

Thomas said financial hardship, cultural isolation and absence of community support pose unique challenges to Indians attending graduate school.

“Quite often, they don’t come with much money to begin with,” Thomas said. “They may be first-generation students. There are unique family challenges as well.”

The funding will be shared between schools in the Sloan Indigenous Graduate Partnership, including UM, where one Indian student is proposing an ion exchange to help with uranium remediation on her Arizona reservation.

Elizabeth Boylan, program director with the Sloan Foundation, said the funds will go to roughly 59 graduate students and 20 doctoral students in the form of stipends.

“When it comes to meeting the needs of American Indian and Alaska Native students, Alaska, Arizona, Montana and Purdue are truly exemplary programs,” said Boylan. “They’re coming together to forge new opportunities and expand their already measurable impact.“

In addition to UM, Montana State University and Montana Tech are participating in the program.

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or at

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