BEMIDJI-Graduates from four Minnesota tribal colleges will soon be presented with a smoother path to Bemidji State University.

Leaders from Leech Lake, Red Lake, White Earth, and Fond du Lac tribal colleges are set to sign four dual-enrollment agreements with the university Friday. That means tribal college students who finish their two-year degrees are automatically accepted at BSU and can start studying there without an admission fee.

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"Our goal is to have their students continue on and come to BSU, be supported by us, and reach their goals, get their degrees and go off and do the positive things they want to do in their communities," said Bill Blackwell, Jr., the executive director of BSU's American Indian Resource Center, who helped orchestrate the agreements. A $20 application fee can sometimes be a hurdle for students on a budget, he said. "When you have a defined path that's laid out for someone, it's much easier to follow that path than it is to try and go create your own path."

The agreement also means that tribal college students will also be able to consult with the university's academic and career advisers before they head to BSU. Any graduate of the tribal colleges can take advantage of the new agreements, even if they receive their diploma years ago.

BSU staff hope to increase the number of American Indian students enrolled at the university, which sits near three of Minnesota's largest reservations and on a lake that was once an Ojibwe village. Blackwell said the university has granted over 1,000 diplomas to American Indian students, had the first American Indian studies program in the state, and put together the world's first Ojibwe language program.

About four percent of the 5,000-strong student body identifies as American Indian, and Blackwell said he hopes to bump that number to 10 percent. The agreements, then, could make higher education more accessible for American Indian students and the university more diverse.

"The more diverse your campus is, and the more diverse populations you have around it, the better off every student is going to be prepared to go out into a very diverse world and work," Blackwell said. "If you're going to work in Northern Minnesota, you are going to work with American Indians in some sort."

He said he's not sure how many more students the new agreements might send to BSU and that the move isn't related to the university's projected budget deficit. Staff at three of the four tribal colleges reported 14-34 two-year graduates each. Fond du Lac staff did not return a request for comment.

"This is just the next step in what we're trying to do to make Bemidji State a destination college for American Indian students," Blackwell said.