Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) have been in existence for over 50 years, serving not only Native American and Alaskan Native students but anyone from the rural communities where they reside. The 35 TCUs in the U.S. train future teachers, nurses, engineers, and more.
Yet despite serving almost 28,000 students yearly, experts say TCUs are often invisible to the public or seen as institutions of lesser quality than other public or private institutions, despite being accredited by state agencies. On top of that, TCUs are grappling with notoriously small operating budgets, relying almost entirely on federal funds or donations. The majority of TCUs receive no state funding, despite some 20% of TCUs students not belonging to any tribal nation.
“As a rule, tribal colleges are not getting funding for any of their non-native students, because federal funding only applies to Native American students,” said Marcella Bombardieri, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress (CAP), a nonpartisan, independent policy institute working to change the U.S. and improve American lives with progressive ideas. “These are tribally chartered institutions—they’re not state institutions, so the states don’t have the same obligation.”
Bombardieri has been working on a three-part series with CAP that can draw more public attention, and ideally the attention of potential funders, to these vital institutions. Her work has helped to illustrate just how TCUs are able to stretch the dollars they do receive into building programs that revitalize vanishing Native American languages and cultural practices while offering a pathway into the workforce. Experts hope that, with more flexible funding, TCUs will be more easily able to not only support their students, but recruit and retain more faculty and expand programs that serve regional needs.
The American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC), which has been working since 1973 to bring TCUs to the attention of federal policymakers, found that for every one dollar invested in TCUs, the return is at least $5.20 each year.
“People [who work at TCUs] live out the values of the community, which are to be available, industrious, and to be solutions-oriented,” said Dr. Cheryl Crazy Bull, president and CEO of The American Indian College Fund, an organization promoting Native American access to higher education through scholarships and programmatic support.
To ensure students have what they need to reach their educational goal, faculty, staff and administration at TCUs often wear multiple hats in addition to their titled role. Faculty have been known to buy a student’s textbooks if the student cannot afford them. At Leech Lake Tribal College, a weekly drum ceremony is accompanied by a feast for the whole community, a reliable meal available to everyone and the hungry student. A Gallop poll conducted with The College Fund found that 59% of TCU alumni strongly agreed with the statement, “my professors/instructors cared about me as a person,” which is 27 percentage points higher than other college graduates.
All this care comes with a consequence—it can lead to burn out, which can lead to faculty, staff, and administrators leaving their roles. It’s another reason Crazy Bull wants to see more flexible funding come to TCUs.
“There’s a drive in the U.S. towards Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education, that has increased funding resources for TCUs in the STEM field—but there is a need for a more balanced education,” said Crazy Bull. “That’s the reason you don’t have a million-dollar grant towards language preservation at a TCU, but you can get a million-dollar grant for STEM—that’s a challenge.”
Dina Horwedel, director of public education and communications at The College Fund, said TCU leaders are often frustrated by their institution’s lack of visibility. Horwedel has been working on a project with The College Fund and three TCUs each year, helping them create communications plans, which are often not in existence due to budgetary shortfalls.
“TCUs bring the community together, provide people with a sense of belonging, oneness, a feeling of support that students report they don’t get at other institutions. They feel seen and heard,” said Horwedel. “TCUs offer an opportunity for them to learn in a supportive environment that respects their culture and traditions.”
Liann Herder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.