Native Americans have the lowest educational attainment of any race.
In 1990, only 9 percent of Native Americans under the age of 25 had a bachelor’s degree, compared to 21 percent of all U.S. citizens. Fortunately, with the preparation of a two-year tribal college or university (TCU), Native American students are four times more likely to earn their bachelor’s degree than those who entered a mainstream four-year institution out of high school, and 86 percent of students who attend TCUs earn a degree. Why is this gap in educational attainment so vast?
One of the ways in which mainstream institutions are failing their Native American students is that they are simply not addressing the values of Native American students. For example, family is such an important value in Native American culture that it can “take priority over their personal academic progress.” Additionally, Native American families struggle with high rates of poverty, alcoholism, drug abuse and domestic violence, which can affect students and even result in them dropping out of college.
It is also important to note that many Native Americans are first-generation students. Cheryl Crazy Bull, president of the American Indian College Fund and former president of Northwest Indian College, has witnessed a lack of preparedness from Native American students because they aren’t having conversations about college with family members and friends: “We’ve encountered students who were coming to college and didn’t know they were going to be responsible for attending classes and asking for help if they needed help…School is starting in a few weeks and we have students just now who are looking for funding. That’s an aspect of college-readiness. You have to get ready for college ahead of time.”
Not only are first-generation students coming into a mainstream university at a disadvantage, but they are also rarely given resources specific to their needs by the university upon arrival. Mainstream universities often lump together first-generation students and provide general resources.
Finally, and perhaps most obviously, mainstream institutions are Eurocentric and often ignore “cultural traditions, norms and perspectives of other racial and cultural groups.” Specifically, instruction at these universities is vastly different from the hands-on methods that are praised in the Native American community, which forces over one-third of Native American students into academic remediation. In addition to their Eurocentric curriculum, these institutions often don’t have faculty of Native American descent, which can further discourage Native American students to attend.
TCUs recognize the need for culturally relevant material. By incorporating Native American values, tribal languages and tribal history, their curriculum is culturally sensitive and provides Native American students with programs and courses that meet their needs. Not only is their course content relevant, but it also is taught in a way that empowers students. Many TCUs utilize the Family Education Model, the purpose of which is to increase Native American student retention by affirming linguistic, racial and ethnic identities, by providing academic and familial counseling, by building a tight-knit community and by preparing students for mainstream culture. Perhaps most importantly, this model emphasizes that the issues surrounding Native American student retention should not be blamed on the behaviors of Native American students, but on the tension between institutional, student and familial values.
TCUs also recognize the disadvantages present for Native Americans and for those who are first-generation, so they are very encouraging of faculty and staff mentorship. These mentors are often called “follow-through” mentors because if their mentee is interested in transferring to a four-year institution, they aid in this process and maintain contact after the transfer process is complete. In addition to their mentorship role, follow-through mentors also act as tutors and advisors for Native American students and are present in many aspects of students’ lives.
Finally, if they are interested in transferring, TCUs help Native American students adjust to the academic environment of post-secondary education before having to adjust to the social environment of a mainstream institution. The environment of a TCU contrasts with that of a mainstream institution in many ways, including the institutional mission, the size of the institution and the racial makeup of students, staff and faculty. Through empowerment and preparation, TCUs serve to “raise a bunch of radicals with the skills to recognize and address social injustice,” as stated by Cheryl Crazy Bull, and these skills are essential in preparing TCU graduates in their transition to a mainstream institution.
While mainstream universities by nature can’t provide all of the benefits that TCUs can provide to Native American students, they can learn from TCUs as a whole and attempt to increase Native American enrollment and retention. First, they can avoid generalizing their first-generation students. This postsecondary community represents a cornucopia of experiences and perspectives and, therefore, requires diverse resources. Second, they can establish bridge programs, collaborations and partnerships with TCUs that will help Native American students transfer if they choose to do so.
In sum, TCUs are truly community colleges and are doing wonders for the Native American community, both in educational attainment and community support.
Rachel E. Bryan is a graduate student at the University of Michigan and is currently a research assistant at the Center for Minority Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania.