Richard DeCelles could hardly believe his eyes. The Fort Peck Community College teacher was driving at night and spotted one of his students hitchhiking in a snowstorm.
It was after 10 p.m. The woman was trying to get home following DeCelles’ class on educational psychology, held at night to accommodate working people. On this night in rural Montana, temperatures were bone-chilling.
DeCelles learned the student had been hitchhiking to class since her car broke down. Public transportation stopped at 5 p.m.
“That just shows the determination of some of our students to get an education,” marvels DeCelles, now the tribal college’s retention coordinator.
There are 37 tribal colleges in the country, which tend to be in remote locations and serve poor populations. Many of the students stick with their education, sometimes despite great odds, to get their degrees and certificates. But too many drop out, the colleges say, due to a long list of reasons: financial difficulties, family responsibilities, a poor high-school education, lack of self-confidence, ignorance about how college works, doubting that a degree can help get a job or even the people they associate with.
Officials with the American Indian Higher Education Consortium say their data on the colleges’ retention rates is unreliable because the schools use varying criteria. The consortium should have more meaningful, consistent data by this spring, they say.
In any case, tribal colleges say they can do a better job of retaining students and are exploring various approaches, such as using grants to fund their efforts in some cases.
Though non-tribal colleges face many of the same issues as tribal colleges, some of the obstacles that tribal colleges face are specific and vary at each institution. Everyday logistics can be a challenge. Some reservations have unreliable Internet and cell phone access. Campuses can be an hour drive away. For this reason, some colleges provide transportation, as well as daycare.
Tribal colleges also have open enrollment, and about 74 percent of students who were new to the institutions and took placement tests in 2011-12 were put in remedial or “developmental” courses.
Dr. Stacey Sherwin, director of institutional effectiveness at Salish Kootenai College in Pablo, Mont., says a holistic approach is needed to counter other issues that affect academic ability, including a lack of esteem, motivation, assertiveness or a support system. “All of these factors weigh a lot more heavily than we thought,” she says.
Some of the students are “just dipping their toes in the water” and if college doesn’t feel right, they leave, Sherwin says. Still, she says, the college assumes that nearly everyone can succeed if they want to.
Dr. Elmer Guy, president of Navajo Technical University in Crownpoint, N.M., says his school, which reports a 72 percent retention rate, tries “all sorts of things,” including listening and responding to what students want and pushing them to succeed.
“If you expect them to perform at a higher level, they rise with you,” says Guy, whose school was named one of the top 120 community colleges in the U.S. by the Aspen Institute for the third year in a row. “Make them work hard, and they do.”
At Navajo Tech, good students tutor others and help professors keep track of those who struggle. The faculty is advised to turn theories into hands-on projects. The students compete with other New Mexico schools in academic contests and are winning a growing number of medals.
Tribal colleges enroll more women than men overall — in 2009-10, 63 percent of students were female — and schools are trying to make men feel more comfortable. Offering more vocational courses and getting men involved in research and community service projects away from the classroom have shown some success, colleges say.
Robert LeDoux first attended Haskell Indian Nation University in Lawrence, Kan., but became distracted when his father and an uncle passed away. He’s now at Turtle Mountain Community College in Belcourt, N.D., working toward a welding certificate.
“For guys, it depends on what group they’re in,” says LeDoux, 31. “They may want to party, and it’s easy to get caught up in that lifestyle.” Some parents drop out to work and feed their families, he adds.
Dwight Carlston, who took remedial courses when he started college, says for “developmental” students, getting a degree can seem like a long slog.
Some students may get thrown off track because college allots too much freedom, says Carlston.
“There’s no one to tell you, ‘You need to go to class,’” notes Carlston, 26, now a top student at Navajo Tech studying environmental science. “No one tells you to get up in the morning.”
Some institutions are taking students firmly by the hand on day one, requiring a lengthy, comprehensive orientation for course credit, which is aimed at immediately building bonds between students and their teachers and making clear academic requirements.
Sitting Bull College in Fort Yates, N.D., has new students meet with math and English instructors. Retention specialists go over reasons for class absences, how to handle a budget, setting long- and short-term goals, learning styles and time management.
The college has seen retention improve due to a $2.25 million retention project funded by the Wal-Mart Foundation. Besides Sitting Bull, there are five other tribal colleges participating — the Institute of American Indian Arts, Ilisagvik College, Leech Lake Tribal College, Stone Child College and Fort Peck Community College.
Nudging students forward
As part of the retention strategy, some schools try to respond quickly when students miss classes. At Sitting Bull, a former social worker knocks on doors. An attendance counselor might drive many miles to see a student. The college also hits students with plenty of phone calls and emails. The first person to answer a mass email might win a $20 gas card.
At Fort Peck, Lanette Clark, the financial aid director, says she springs into action once a student misses classes and tries to find out what is wrong. “I hate when a student is given a $500 scholarship, and they’re out the door after a week or two.”
Building relationships between students, faculty and staff is crucial to retention, the colleges are finding. Just getting a retention coordinator isn’t enough.
Some colleges, such as Stone Child in Box Elder, Mont., have faculty members spend time at “learning centers” so students can get help outside of class and can get to know their teachers better. Tribal cultural activities are on hand to help students connect education with their heritage. Leech Lake in Cass Lake, Minn., and Sitting Bull hold drumming sessions on Mondays, and several colleges hold “talking circles,” where men share their thoughts. At Salish Kootenai, tribal leaders gather with students, offering mentoring and motivation.
But external realities can intrude on the best-laid plans. Fort Peck Community College has a formidable rival for students’ attention: an oil boom in neighboring North Dakota producing a plethora of jobs, many high-paying. The college offers vocational certificates in truck-driving and construction, but some companies do their own training.
Teachers tell the students they may not always want to drive a truck or do welding, or may want to become a supervisor or rise in their company with the help of a degree. But it can be a tough sell when students report making $90,000 a year after a relatively short time on the job.
Guy says tribal colleges have a critical mission that students should heed. “We have to give young people with bright minds certain skills to eliminate poverty on the reservation,” he says.
His advice to students: “Take your education seriously.”