Tribal College Students Face Challenges to Graduate

American Indian College Fund / Students gather to discuss a project at the Navajo Technical University.

Tribal colleges face different challenges and a greater lack of resources than most other higher education institutions.

When tribal colleges lack resources, it’s graduation rates that suffer.

However, there is also good news. The American Indian College Fund is growing, and in the last year, $7.1 million in scholarships was distributed to students and tribal colleges. Yet, according to Cheryl Crazy Bull, CEO and president of the College Fund, tribal colleges are still stretched very thin.

Crazy Bull said colleges face “such incredible shortages of resources that the lack of investment is harmful to students. I really hope the tribal colleges will eventually be fully funded with all the resources they need to be competitive in the higher education world.”

American Indian College Fund / Cheryl Crazy Bull, President and CEO of the American Indian College Fund and Cynthia Linquist, President of Cankdeska Cikana Community College prior to the American Indian College Fund Flame of Hope Gala in Minneapolis, Minnesota in October 2012.

Staying in college is not easy for rural Native students who live in impoverished areas. Because tribal colleges are open to all high school graduates, real eligibility is determined by their finances. “There are federal guidelines that surrounds financial eligibility and there are limits on how much of a Pell Grant you can get,” Crazy Bull said.

Students receiving financial aid can lose their funding if a college doesn’t provide necessary classes within a certain period of time. “You only have so many semesters to finish with Pell, which is the main source of federal financial aid, and you have to make academic progress or progress towards your degree. There are so many factors that affect low income and students of color who don’t have the experience or wherewithal to stay on track.”

Some of the more isolated tribal colleges are seeing declining enrollment, Crazy Bull said. “When I talked to the presidents, a lot of them attribute it to the stressors that are going on in the communities, the drugs, lack of finances, resources. It’s so frustrating because there is really a very rich cultural environment, but the poverty and lack of resources is debilitating,” Crazy Bull said.

It isn’t just students who struggle, but the colleges themselves. “Tribal colleges have to make decisions about where they will allocate resources,” Crazy Bull said. “From a leadership perspective, a tribal college president has to deal with the faculty, student issues, accreditation issues, and the facility, as well as make decisions about allocating resources. It’s very challenging.”

American Indian College Fund / Waylon Ballew, AIHEC 2014, Liberal Arts major, was named Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute Student of the Year.

Generally speaking, tribal colleges reflect the economy of their local reservations. The College Fund website states that unemployment rates on reservations can be as high as 85 percent. Native youth face some of the lowest high school graduation rates nationwide and have the lowest educational attainment rates of all ethnic and racial groups. Less than 13 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native students have earned a college degree, compared to 28 percent in other racial groups.

The high school graduation rate has improved in some places but overall it hasn’t, Crazy Bull said. “Statistically, it’s pretty much the same. But there are some places where there has been an increase in graduating students.”

“Things are so tough in our communities that I am constantly reminding the staff that we are in the business of saving people’s lives. People might not realize it because they don’t have that kind of engagement with tribal communities, but I see it,” she said.

Attracting students and keeping them in school is difficult and extremely important, Crazy Bull said, especially in light of the suicide crisis facing many reservations. “I would speculate that going to college could have an impact on whether or not a kid might commit suicide,” she said. She added that students in tribal colleges tend to create extended families, “a cohort of relationships.”

American Indian College Fund / Dr. David Yarlott Jr., president of Little Big Horn College presents Dr. Cheryl Crazy Bull with an art piece representing the AIHEC conference—at Billings, Montana.

The tribal colleges also offer an environment of acceptance and support. Access to college wellness resources could potentially get them through some of the challenges they face, Crazy Bull said. “It is also interesting to speculate that school provides structure. When I was a school superintendent, I used to tell kids, you know what? If you come to school, you get to be in a safe place and you get to develop the skills to cope with what’s going on out there that’s not safe.”

The College Fund was established by the American Indian Higher Education Consortium and serves accredited full members of AIHEC. Their hope is to meet the national goal set by education providers: that 60 percent of adults attain a post-secondary education. “For that to happen, the colleges have to engage more with recruitment and help students stay in school,” Crazy Bull said.

AIHEC is a membership organization that provides service to the 34 accredited tribal colleges and associate member colleges not yet accredited. “The tribal colleges are badly needed and we badly need more,” Crazy Bull said. Regarding the recent decline in attendance, she said, “I just think young people are not seeing the kind of future we wish they would see.”

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