On The Right PathOver the past 20 years, colleges and universities continue to experience an increase in the number of American Indian/Alaska Native students receiving degrees
Accounting for only 1 percent of the total U.S. population, American Indians have a 60 percent to 70 percent high school dropout rate, the highest among all minority groups. At the same time, however, more American Indian students than ever are graduating from high school and leaving their home communities behind in pursuit of a higher education.
Leaving their communities behind also means trying to maintain a balance between their indigenous values and beliefs and that of the dominant culture’s. And despite their high dropout rates and the fact that 30 percent of the American Indian population lives below the poverty line, they recognize that education is the key to a better future.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics (1999-2000), there has been tremendous growth in the number of earned degrees in postsecondary institutions serving American Indian and Alaska Native students.
The number of American Indians/Alaska Natives earning associate’s degrees more than doubled from 1984 to 2000, with the largest percentage of students, 31 percent, majoring in liberal arts and sciences, general studies and humanities.
The number of American Indian and Alaska Native students receiving bachelor’s degrees also doubled from 1984 to 2000, jumping from 4,246 in 1984 to 8,711 in 2000. In 2000, the largest percentage of graduates majored in business, 17 percent, followed by social sciences and history, 11 percent.
Graduate schools also have seen an increase in the number of American Indian and Alaska Native students obtaining degrees since 1984. In 2000, the majority of graduate students received a master’s in education, 33 percent, followed by business, 19 percent. The number of American Indian/Alaska Natives students receiving doctoral degrees increased from 119 in 1984 to just 159 in 2000, whereas the number of American Indian/Alaska Natives students receiving first professional degrees more than doubled from 1984 to 2000, with 248 students receiving a first professional degree in 1984 compared to 564 in 2000. Law and healthcare professions, such as medicine, pharmacy and dentistry, were the most popular professions among American Indian and Alaska Native professional degree recipients.
Growing Their Own
Despite the increase in the number of American Indian/Alaska Natives receiving degrees, the percentage is still relatively small compared to the total American Indian and Alaska Native population. There’s no doubt, however, that the steady growth of tribally controlled colleges and universities in the United States has contributed to the increase in graduates across the board.
The 33 tribal colleges and universities (TCU) located on or near reservations — starting with the founding of the first tribally controlled college Diné (Navajo) College in 1968 — were established to serve the needs of their own Native communities — preserving, enhancing and promoting the language and culture of their tribe and integrating their tribe-specific worldview.
The tribal colleges and universities’ open enrollment policies allow for a diverse range of students to apply, including those with low GPAs in high school; those who have dropped out of high school and received a GED; elders returning to school; students with learning disabilities; students from low-income households; those who plan to transfer to four-year institutions; and even non-Native people.
The majority of tribal colleges offer two-year associate’s degrees, several offer four-year degrees, and a few offer graduate degrees, specifically in the field of education and leadership. It’s also noteworthy that tribal colleges and universities have more female presidents than any other type of institution. Many American Indian students say that they chose to attend their tribal college because it was close to home and provided social and emotional comfort. In an article that ran in a 2002 edition of The Native Voice, one student from Si Tanka-Huron University said, “I was one of those students who was ‘shipwrecked’ … I first started college at the University of Minnesota at Morris. I ended up dropping out after a year. I couldn’t handle it, it was too far away from home … I was constantly having to deal with racism … That was a distraction that weighed heavily on my studies and my studies failed me because of it.”
According to an American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) survey, the average student attending a tribal college is approximately 30 years old, female and has children. However, recent trends indicate that there is a shift toward a younger student body, and an increased male enrollment. In addition, most of the students enrolled in tribal colleges and universities are first-generation college students.
Like most minority-serving institutions, tribal colleges suffer from insufficient funding. The financial support for most TCUs comes from the Tribally Controlled Community College Assistance Act of 1978. Twenty years ago, Congress authorized $4,000 for each full-time American Indian student, but the actual funding amount was far less — a mere $2,000. And although their funding has increased over the years, tribal colleges and universities today receive approximately $3,000 per full-time student, nearly half of what the typical community college receives per student. The struggle for financial support is a constant for most TCUs. As a result, the faculty is underpaid and the resources and facilities are limited. But despite these challenges, TCUs have continued to make progress.
In addition to the establishment of tribally controlled colleges and universities, many mainstream institutions have taken a closer look at sustaining and increasing the enrollment of American Indians and Alaska Natives through retention programs focusing on helping students transition to college life. The most often cited reason that American Indian students have difficulty in college is due to cultural discontinuity, according to an article that appeared in School Counselor titled “Between Two Worlds: Cultural Discontinuity in the Dropout Rate of Native American Youth.” Many American Indian and Alaska Native students have resided in remote rural locations on reservations throughout their lives and, therefore, experienced a type of culture shock while attending mainstream universities. David Anderson, an advocate of indigenous education, wrote in the McGill Journal of Education, “Schools are an imposed institution used to systemically instill the values and pass on the knowledge of those who operate them … and in North America, only a small number of individuals are successful. As for the rest of them, they drop out of school, become inactive in their community and focus on consumerism.”
A New Attitude
The attitudes and perceptions among American Indians and Alaska Natives regarding receiving a college education have changed and are changing. As tribes embark on the notion of sovereignty, there rests a shared goal to instill the importance of increasing the college graduation rates among American Indian and Alaska Native students. Consequently, there has been an increase in the number of community college students transferring to four-year universities. And as mentioned earlier, there seems to be a shift toward a younger student body, as well as an increased male enrollment. According to an article in Black Issues In Higher Education in 2000, the study, “Creating Role Models for Change: A Survey of Tribal College Graduates,” revealed that 91 percent of students who graduated from the nation’s 33 tribal-run colleges and universities in 1998 either had secured a job or decided to further their higher education.
Additionally, the development of the American Indian College Fund; the Tribal College Journal; the World Indigenous Nations Higher Education Consortium and the Alliance for Equity in Higher Education; and the establishment of cultural learning centers at institutions, were created to raise awareness and help accommodate the cultural values of indigenous students into their academic studies.
As college completion rates among American Indians and Alaska Natives continue to rise, the potential of this often overlooked population is highlighted, as well as the need for ongoing reformation efforts to better understand the diversity of these populations and the challenges they face both maintaining their indigenous culture and embracing that of mainstream America’s.
Valerie J. Shirley, Diné, recently received her master’s in curriculum and instruction from the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
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