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Institutional Revival

Institutional Revival

Since President Cynthia Lindquist has come on board, Cankdeska Cikana Community College has regained its accreditation and is experiencing a boost in full-time student numbers.

By David Pluviose

Nobody would have seen this coming back in 2003, when the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) placed Cankdeska Cikana Community College on probation. The commission, part of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, didn’t have much choice, as the Fort Totten, N.D., college struggled with financial and administrative upheaval. But the college’s accreditation was reaffirmed late last year, not for two or four years as was expected, but for 10 years, a move HLC associate director Robert R. Appleson calls “extremely unusual.”

“It would have been more typical, probably, to have gotten five years, or six years. But the [CCCC accreditation review] team felt, and I think they made a strong argument, that the issues that had put [CCCC] on probation were not only resolved, but there was a very strong feeling that they weren’t going to recur,” Appleson says.

President Cynthia Lindquist, who took over the helm of CCCC in 2003 with a background in health administration, was apparently just what the school needed to slow the trend of rapid administrative turnover and get things moving forward again.

“She has the background to lead. The leadership issue was a major issue. She has a vision, and she knows where she wants to take the college,” says CCCC academic dean Thalia Esser, a former interim president of the college.

Dr. Gerald E. Gipp, executive director of the American Indian Higher -Education Consortium, agrees. “You have to give full credit to President Lindquist. There’s no question that her leadership, her ability to turn that around in a couple of years, is a tremendous feat, especially to gain 10-year accreditation, coming off of a probation.”

Coming Home
Cankdeska Cikana was formerly known as Little Hoop Community College, the English translation of the college’s namesake, a fallen World War II-era tribal warrior. Lindquist points to three reasons why the college was put on probation: financial instability; governance problems stemming from a fractious relationship between the tribal government, the board of regents and the institution; and the lack of student assessment data.

“I came home; this is my home reservation, I’m an enrolled member of the Spirit Lake Tribe, and I was recruited to come home to help to literally clean up the messes and to get the college off of probation,” says Lindquist who’s wrapping up a doctorate in educational leadership.

Getting a handle on the turnover problem was a particular challenge for the college, given its rural, tribal setting, Lindquist says.

“There were seven presidents and there were five finance officers,” she says. “But it has to be somewhat understood in the context. We’re a very small tribal college in Fort Totten, N.D. And we’re getting better, but we don’t have that many tribal members with credentials.”

One of CCCC’s major improvements under Lindquist has been the collection of student assessment data that the college now uses to revamp course offerings.

“What changed in the last two years — we have an assessment committee,” Esser says. “The faculty turns in what the assessment committee requires — pretests, post-tests, rubrics that they need to have for the classes so they can track student learning. And then those are analyzed.”

Though CCCC’s total student population has held steady at about 200 for the past several years, Lindquist says there has been an increase in full-time equivalent, or FTE, students, which has also contributed to the school’s turnaround.

“We’ve set a goal to double the enrollment based on the reservation population [approximately 6,000], but what’s more significant is that we’ve increased the FTE,” she says. “The FTE count is what drives our funding because we’re federally appropriated. But more important is the caliber of the students. They’re declaring majors; they’re finishing courses and programs. To me, that’s more significant.”

Dr. John E. Roueche, director of the University of Texas at Austin’s community college leadership program, says getting the FTE numbers up so quickly was critical to the college’s turnaround.

“I think [the rise in FTE students] would be very important, and it also speaks to some good work. I would say, given the trouble they’ve had, the instability they’ve had, it’s a remarkable accomplishment, and it probably speaks to some very good leadership that the college has gotten off probation in such a short period of time,” Roueche said.

Fickle Funding
However, an ongoing problem CCCC and other tribal colleges face is the relative lack of stable funding. Unlike most community colleges, tribal colleges rely exclusively on federal appropriations, which are tied to the number of FTE students each college serves. Most community colleges have the benefit of additional local and state funds.

However, these federal funds can be reduced or eliminated in any budget cycle, leaving CCCC and other tribal colleges uncomfortably close to a financial precipice.

“It’s a continual battle, no question about that. It is a fickle kind of situation where funding can change dramatically from one year to the next, depending on what’s happening nationally,” Gipp says.

According to Lindquist, CCCC has been able to navigate the federal appropriations maze successfully through the years, but, “We’re at the whim of the American public and Congress for our appropriation, and we are discretionary spending,” she says.

Though tribal colleges like CCCC benefit from strong support from their own congressional representatives, they often run into roadblocks from lawmakers from other parts of the country unfamiliar with the issues unique to tribal colleges, Gipp says.

“The congressional delegates that represent our colleges are pretty much understanding of the kinds of needs that exist out there in terms of Indian communities and, more specifically, the tribal colleges. The problem is that the other congressional representatives across the country probably don’t have a very good understanding,” Gipp says.

Jamie Merisotis, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy in Washington, D.C., says the federal funding issue puts CCCC at a distinct disadvantage compared to the typical public college.

 “The uncertainty of the federal appropriations process has gotten worse over the years, and it creates a particular problem for the tribal colleges because it is their core funding and oftentimes, the appropriations actually aren’t done until after the federal fiscal year starts — [Congress enacts] continuing resolutions, so it makes financial stability very difficult, which, in turn, can lead to other problems.”

Though CCCC functions with half of the funding that non-tribal public colleges in North Dakota get, Esser says “another issue that we’re facing here, is our Native American students, when they go to a state institution, the state gives money to the institution for the student taking classes there. Caucasian students or students that are not enrolled in any federally recognized tribe coming here, we don’t get any funding at all. They’re not counted.”

Merisotis says the peculiar nature of how tribal colleges are funded is typically not taken into account by accreditation bodies like the HLC during the accreditation review process.

“It’s a difficult position for the accreditors, because financial and administrative capacity is a reasonable standard. But to the best of my knowledge, there isn’t some consideration for the fact that the funding model in tribal colleges really is substantially different,” Merisotis says. “There are very limited amounts of tuition available because of the low incomes in the reservation-based communities.”

Appleson disagrees, saying that HLC accreditation review teams are often composed of members very familiar with tribal colleges and their unique challenges. For example, the chairwoman for the accreditation team that reviewed the CCCC case was an American Indian.

Though a lower standard is not set for tribal colleges, Appleson says, “People need to understand that it is a different funding model, and at the same time, to understand the necessity of tribal support for the school.”

That community support is critical to help tribal colleges subsist, especially when congressionally approved funding gets bogged down with red tape, he adds.

Merisotis says many policymakers don’t realize how crucial the tribal colleges are to their communities, especially in a remote setting like Fort Totten.

“One of the things about tribal colleges that is often the case is that it is often the most important and stable community resource in that community. The tribal colleges are also playing the role of a de facto community health center, de facto tribal archives and library and de facto adult education center,” he says.

According to Roueche, the tribal college’s isolation from mainstream higher education may be another factor negatively affecting the perception of policymakers in Washington, D.C. But the flip side of that argument is a commitment by the colleges to maintain their own identities. Roueche says the colleges could be more concerned with preserving their own language and culture than with integrating into the wider society.

Lindquist says the preservation of American Indian culture is at the core of CCCC’s mission. Setting the college back on track has meant more than just bringing in new students and a more stable administration. CCCC is also working to redesign its curriculum to better reflect its commitment to cultural preservation. Lindquist says the basic concept is simple.

“Culture should be the foundation and everything else should integrate into us.”

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