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Tribal College ‘Beats the Odds’ to Find Academic Success

One of the most important and anticipated occasions on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota is graduation day, says Thomas Shortbull, president of Oglala Lakota College, or OLC, the nation’s second-largest and second oldest tribal college. OLC was founded in 1971.

Getting Native American students on the reservation to and through college, however, remains a great challenge, especially when most enter OLC financially strapped and reading at a 10th grade level. Before embarking on college-level work, Shortbull says, 60 percent of OLC freshmen must enroll in remedial reading and writing courses and 60 to 70 percent in remedial math. But in August, the successes and innovative strategies that have come with offering 40 years of higher education to Lakota people landed OLC on a national list of 32 postsecondary institutions that show promise in increasing completion for underrepresented students.

OLC is the only tribal college featured in the report, “Beating the Odds: What It Means and Why It’s Important.” The report, released in September, was developed by HCM Strategists, a Washington, D.C.-based public policy advocacy group, with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The college serves about 1,800 students per semester at 11 sites spread across the vast reservation, in Rapid City and Eagle Butte, S.D. The 40-year-old college, which offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees, has graduated more than 3,000 students. In 2011, the college awarded 204 diplomas and certificates, 155 in 2010 and 133 in 2009.

In this conversation, Shortbull explains what it means to help Native students “beat the odds” to succeed in college.

DI: What has it meant to be the only tribal college featured in the “Beating the Odds” report?

Shortbull: It is a big honor that recognizes the hard work that we put into taking students who come in with pretty marginal skills — they don’t have the 22 or 28 ACT scores — and move them through to a college degree. This is a major accomplishment.

DI: How would you describe some of the greatest academic needs of your incoming freshmen?

TS: The problem that we have with our reservation schools is that there has been a lot of social promotion. So, we get students who are high school graduates but can’t meet our minimum requirement to enroll in college-level courses — about a 65 [Accuplacer] score, which means that they are reading on a 10th-grade level. We now mandate that they have to get at 65. And there are incentives, a $250 scholarship, but we really want our students to come in reading at a 12th-grade level. We haven’t mandated it yet, but students who score 71 on the Accuplacer by reading at a 12th-grade level receive an additional $250 scholarship. This last year we put in place cut scores that you must have before taking college-level courses.

DI: What impact will these academic changes have on admissions and the students OLC attracts?

TS: It’s going to impact enrollment. If students can’t reach these levels, they won’t be able to take additional college courses. There really is incentive to get that reading comprehension up. We know that there is a need to do this. The issue, like at most institutions, is to strive for quality students.

DI: Is OLC working with reservation schools (K-12) to reach and improve the quality of students who enter?

TS: Yes, that’s the next step. I basically patterned this incentive program after the state of Texas, which has similar cut scores. To get into the University of Texas, you have to [obtain] a similar Accuplacer score that we have established. The ripple effect that this program has had in Texas is that schools with large Hispanic populations had to gear their students to meet the college entrance requirements. In San Antonio, for example, scores have increased, and it has been a very positive thing.

DI: What is needed to support underprepared high school students?

TS: Our school system needs to start gearing instruction to producing students with good reading, writing, and math skills. We find that, if they don’t have these skills, their chances of success in college are greatly reduced. We have open enrollment, but it doesn’t mean that we’ll let anybody come in. It means that incoming students have to be college-ready.


DI: What financial aid and funding strategies are in place at OLC to support Native students?

TS: We’ve increased scholarship support to about $2.3 million. We’ve done an exceptional job of raising our endowment for scholarships to about $8 million. Our goal for the next seven years is to increase that to $14 million. Native students can come here and be pretty well financially supported.

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