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Documenting American Indian Success

In light of their new report on American Indian college student achievement, leaders of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium were stunned to hear that the U.S. Department of Education cited “insufficient data” and “results not demonstrated” as explanations for a huge cut for tribal college funding in President Bush’s proposed 2008 education budget. Tribal colleges are funded under Title III of the Education Act, which provides aid to developing institutions. Bush has proposed cutting their funding  by 20 percent, to $18.6 million.
AIHEC says the new report, “American  Indian Measures for Success,” is an  innovative, comprehensive data instrument that defines and measures the success of American Indians at the nation’s tribal colleges. The report, presented to a number  of federal agencies this year, details the  systemic and culturally based approaches to American Indian student success, according to AIHEC President Cheryl Crazy Bull. The report, she says, includes information that numbers alone cannot convey. In addition to standard information on student enrollment, retention and graduation, AIMS examines how effectively tribal colleges work to meet their individual missions, which include revitalizing local cultures and improving communities’ economic and traditional well-being.
The report includes information that is often requested by various federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Education Department and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. AIMS creators say they made special efforts to make the data compatible with these agencies’ reporting requirements, and also invited representatives from several of the agencies to serve on the report’s advisory committee. The Education Department declined to participate.
Officials at the Education Department
now say the proposed funding reduction is not based on the colleges’ performance, but represent an attempt to cut construction grants “because of past substantial funding to [tribal colleges] Ñ a total of $44 million benefiting 27 institutions since 2001,” says an Education Department spokesperson.
That amounts to about $1.6 million for each of the 27 institutions over a period of six years, which is only a fraction of what comparable mainstream institutions receive, says Carrie L. Billy, the deputy director of AIHEC and one of the authors of the AIMS study.
“Rather than provide the colleges with development capacity and establishment of institutional resources Ñ the intent of Title III – they cut the program, making resources more scarce,” she says.
Dr. James Shanley, president of Fort Peck Community College in Poplar, Mont., says tribal colleges will now take up the budget discussion with the U.S. Congress.
Providing data to government agencies has generally been a frustrating experience for tribal colleges. According to Billy, the Education Department declined to read a number of recent Title III proposals because the data were not submitted in an acceptable form. Proposals prepared using unacceptable type font and/or incorrect margin size did not meet department standards, she says.
Billy says she is hopeful that the AIMS initiative can help smooth out the process. The effort has so far met with support from BIA and other federal agencies. Initiated in 2003 with a $785,000 grant from the Lumina Foundation, the four-year project created 45 indicators of tribal college student performance. The project has produced a 215-page book detailing information on enrollment and graduation trends, fields of study, facilities and infrastructure, student costs, faculty and staff demographics and tribal partnerships, among other things. It sets up a template to provide information in subsequent years and is available on the AIHEC Web site.
Most importantly, Billy says, the report tells the true story of tribal college success. She says the tremendous service they provide the community cannot be overlooked. For example, she says tribal colleges often offer Native language summer camps, wellness programs, professional development for health workers and Head Start classes.
The AIMS study also provides a unique picture of the students who attend tribal colleges. One-quarter of students were unmarried with children and had an average family income of $14,000, far below the poverty line. The students often support themselves and other family members while attending college. Consequently, they often stop their college education for one of more years because of family pressures.

AIHEC and tribal college leaders say they hope the AIMS report, never before attempted on such a scale, will provide a foundation to significantly increase American Indian success in higher education.

–Mary Annette Pember

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