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Partnership with Northern Arizona University Boosts Native Americans’ Educational Opportunities

When Diné College, the higher education institution of the Navajo Nation, opened its doors for students this year, it did so with a strengthened partnership with Northern Arizona University (NAU) that both institutions hope will boost the prospects for more Native Americans in the region to earn four-year baccalaureate degrees.

In a special arrangement, Northern Arizona and Diné have established a joint admissions policy that, from Day One, recognizes students enrolled in either institution.

Students stand in front of NAU’s Native American Cultural Center, home to more than 1,500 students from 127 tribes. (Photo courtesy of Northern Arizona University)Students stand in front of NAU’s Native American Cultural Center, home to more than 1,500 students from 127 tribes. (Photo courtesy of Northern Arizona University)

To boot, NAU established a similar partnership recently with the much smaller Tohono O’odham Community College to offer the same joint admissions policy for students of the Tohono Nation community in Arizona.

The enhanced partnership also allows students at Diné, the first and oldest tribal-controlled college in the United States, and Tohono to transfer to Northern Arizona at any time they feel they are academically ready, eliminating the historic requirement of most major four-year institutions in the United States that transferees earn a minimum number of credit hours before being admitted as a transferee.

“We leave room for flexibility,” says Dr. Chad Hamill, the president’s special assistant on Native American Affairs at NAU, discussing the new approach.

“We have no minimum standards” to transfer, says Hamill.

“That’s an advantage of joint admissions.”

The enhanced partnership between Diné, Tohono and NAU reflects efforts in Indian country to enhance higher education opportunities for Native Americans by making enrollment and completion of baccalaureate studies less cumbersome for students and institutions.

Boosting enrollment

The initiatives come on the heels of a one-year dip in overall tribal college enrollment, despite efforts to stabilize and boost it, according to tribal college officials and federal and higher education association surveys.

The recent and, in some cases, more flexible moves follow more rigid and defined articulation pacts that have been established for several decades in such states as Washington, Wisconsin and Michigan.

In Washington state, Northwest Indian College, the only tribally controlled community college in the state, has long been a participant in the Direct Transfer Agreement (DTA), the long-term pact of the state’s four-year institutions governing transfer requirements of students completing studies from two-year colleges.

The DTA “helps assure” that, if a Northwest Indian student earns an associate degree from the college, the state’s public four-year institutions will accept those who transfer as having completed the first two years of college and earned enough credit hours to enter as an upperclassman, says Paul Seegert, director of admissions at the University of Washington.

Private colleges in Washington have their own articulation agreement, Seegert notes.

In Wisconsin, at Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Community College, longstanding articulation agreements with several campuses of the University of Wisconsin have helped its graduates move almost seamlessly toward four-year degrees at Wisconsin campuses at Stevens Point and Superior.

The step-by-step, piece-by-piece moves to make tribal colleges stronger partners in expanding higher education opportunities are getting real boosts with the new partnerships between the relatively new and small Comanche Nation College and more established institutions across Oklahoma, in which the nation is located.

The University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University now accept the academic credits for three associate degrees — humanities, natural sciences and American Indian studies — awarded by Comanche Nation, which is still working on accreditation by the regional higher education accrediting body.

Bacone College in Muscogee, Oklahoma, has more recently reached partnership agreements with Comanche Nation on understandings that will help Comanche College graduates more easily transfer to the four-year institutions with some academic credit.

“If we become accredited, all of our credits transfer,” says Comanche College President Robbie Wahnee, a higher education veteran in Oklahoma who earned a Ph.D. at the University of Oklahoma.

For the time being, while working on institutional accreditation, the articulation agreements “serve as a bridge” to accredited schools, says Wahnee. “They can be as expansive as you want or as limited as you want,” she says of articulation agreements, noting the myriad understandings that date back for years between institutions across the nation.

Regardless, she says, partnerships “usually require some reciprocity.”

Expanding transfer

For sure, institutions forming partnerships involving Native community colleges note the special dimension of learning and future academic success potential many Native students bring from tribal colleges.

“We’ve found that students who come from tribal colleges tend to be more successful” in completing four-year institutions “because they [tribal colleges] provide a more localized, culturally relevant curricula,” says Hamill at NAU.

Noting that NAU has 127 distinctive tribes represented in its student body, the students rooted in each tribe get that identity “reinforced” so they get to a four-year college more well-grounded.

Those historical and cultural roots help students and institutions chart courses for further study, Hamill and others say.

Indeed, Seegert stresses that expanding transfer and admissions rules is only one key element to reaching the four-year college finish line.

“Just getting into a four-year is only part of the process,” says Seegert. Ninety credits, the equivalent of two years or half the credits needed to graduate from a four-year public college in Washington, is one of those things, Seegert reminds people.

Bringing the credits required to earn a degree in a specific area is a much different challenge, he says. “The more credits they can transfer, the better,” he says, echoing advice often offered to students by advisers when some credits may not count toward a particular degree.

Advocates of expanded relations between four-year and tribally controlled community colleges say there are other hurdles institutions need to remember in order for the plans to work.

“Relations take a lot of face-to-face time,” says Hamill, noting the travel distance from the NAU main campus to some points in the 27,000-square-mile Navajo Nation can take several hours per trip. “It can be hard enough to maintain relationships on our campus. You have to make efforts to maintain relationships” with community colleges in the Navajo Nation.

That reality noted, Hamill says NAU has plans to explore “expanding methodically,” reaching memorandums of understanding with the tribal-controlled community colleges across the continental United States, starting with those closest to the university. “For now,” he says, “it’s just a matter of putting in the effort.”

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