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Red Lake Nation College Breaks New Ground in Urban Setting


Humility. Truth. Courage. Honesty. Respect. Love. Wisdom.

Those are the seven Ojibwe values that guide all instruction at Red Lake Nation College (RLNC), a two-year Tribal College and University (TCU) in Red Lake, Minnesota. Like most TCUs, RLNC is dedicated to the preservation of Native culture, language, and sovereignty, and their campus sits within the boundaries of a reservation.

But now, after years of planning, RLNC has opened a site within Minneapolis, making it the first TCU in a major metropolitan area.

The new site for Red Lake Nation College in Minneapolis, MN.The new site for Red Lake Nation College in Minneapolis, MN.“We knew there was an interest. We did a market study, and we found out we have enough Tribal members to support a site [in Minneapolis],” said Dan King, president of RLNC. “There’s about 50,000 Natives in the Twin Cities area. It’s one of the largest urban centers of Natives in the country.”

Expanding to the city means RLNC is filling a gap in Native-based education, reaching populations that, before, may have been less easily able to access the kind of experiences offered at a TCU. Across the nation, Native Americans and Alaska Natives have some of the lowest graduation and degree attainment rates.

“What RLNC has done, creating an urban branch of its place-based institution, recognizes the reality that many of our tribal citizens live off-reservation, often in metro or urban areas, and that they desire an education that is culturally responsive and accessible,” said Dr. Cheryl Crazy Bull, president and CEO of the American Indian College Fund, the nation’s largest charity that funds Native American and Alaska Native students’ postsecondary journeys.

“It is a wonderful opportunity to expand the mission-focused work of TCUs with an emphasis on restorative cultural practices,” said Crazy Bull. “It strengthens the bonds among tribal citizens and provides access to improved career pathways.”

Crazy Bull and King acknowledged that this kind of expansion requires resources. It took a deliberate combination of federal, state, local, and tribal funding, plus alumni, corporate, and philanthropic donations, for RLNC to make its investment within the city limits. The total cost of purchasing and refurbishing the Minneapolis location was about $16.2 million, and RLNC was able to achieve this purchase entirely without accruing any debt.

“Any expansion of tribal colleges provides insights and lessons for other TCUs in their operations and growth. Capital investments are one of the most challenging resources to access and many aspects of this expansion are unique to the vision of the Red Lake Nation and the leadership of RLNC,” said Crazy Bull.

With their new Minneapolis location, King said he is excited to expand their community education program. While RLNC enrolls about 300 full-time students, they serve another 700 community members who seek educational opportunities at their institution, including culture and language classes, some offered online at no-cost. King said he is also looking forward to developing workforce programming, expanding collaborations with businesses to assess their needs and how they align with the Native community.

Dan King, president of RLNC.Dan King, president of RLNC.“That’s one of our goals, to serve the Native communities wherever they are,” said King.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, RLNC has offered high-flex model courses, which allows students the opportunity to attend class in person at the Red Lake location, situated about four and a half hours north of Minneapolis, or online. Now, at the new city site, urban-living students can attend online courses in a group setting, lending a sense of togetherness that King said works very well for his students. Since the switch to high-flex, and by giving free laptops and free internet to full-time students, RLNC’s graduation rates have jumped to 47%, almost 12 percentage points higher than the national average, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

“We strive for excellence in everything we do, to provide excellent higher education from a Native perspective,” said King. “A lot of our students in our classes say, ‘Growing up, we don’t hear anything about Natives.’ We include the true history — that Natives were here since time immemorial. And that blows people’s minds. It increases pride, knowledge, history, and culture.”

More than that, King added, it gives students a chance to believe in their potential, opening their minds to the possibility that they could pursue more education, transferring to four-year institutions and continuing to graduate schools.

“To see someone like themselves as teacher, admin, college president, I’m like them. Eighty percent of our students are first generation, like me. I know that fear when I first step into a college, so we build people up,” said King. “We’re in the people business. Build up academic skills, confidence, self-esteems, and after two years, they say I can go that extra step. That’s our goal, building people up.”

Liann Herder can be reached at [email protected].

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