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Tribal Colleges and Universities

Students and Faculty, Institutional Types, Accreditation and Funding

Tribal colleges and universities are unique American institutions that offer opportunities for Native Americans to pursue higher education within their own cultural and regional contexts. Generally located on or near Indian reservations, tribal colleges and universities (also referred to as tribally controlled colleges) aim to preserve and communicate traditional native culture, provide higher education and career or technical opportunities to tribal members, enhance economic opportunities within the reservation community, and promote tribal self-determination.

In 1968 Diné, Inc., an organization established by Native American political and education leaders, founded Navajo Community College (later renamed Diné College). This was the first tribal college to be created on an American Indian reservation. Since then the number of tribal colleges has increased steadily in the United States. As of 2001, thirty-two tribal colleges have emerged, created by American Indians tribes for American Indians. These colleges are located in areas with large concentrations of Native Americans, principally in the upper Midwest, the Pacific Northwest, and the Southwest.

There are seven tribal colleges in Montana, five in North Dakota, four in South Dakota, three in Minnesota, three in New Mexico, two each in Michigan, Nebraska, and Wisconsin, and one each in Arizona, California, Kansas, and Washington. Inclusive of these, two new colleges in Michigan and Minnesota were added in 2001, highlighting the steady growth that tribal colleges continue to experience in their relatively short history. Among these tribal colleges and universities, twenty-four are community colleges and offer the associate's degree and technical and vocational certificates, six offer the bachelor's degree, and two offer the master's degree. In light of the tribes' federal sovereign status, however, tribal colleges and universities receive little or no state funds. Thus, they are primarily dependent on federal assistance for their core operating expenses through oversight by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Students and Faculty

The majority of tribal colleges and universities are located on isolated Indian reservations. As a result, most of them have small enrollments, often less than 1,000 students. While smaller classes enable these tribal colleges to offer more individualized instruction, they also struggle with limited resources in part due to their smaller enrollments. As of 1994 tribal colleges served approximately 15,000 full-and part-time students according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The average age of tribal college students has become younger in recent years, from thirty years of age down to twenty-seven, as students are choosing with greater frequency to enroll directly in a tribal college after graduation from high school. The majority of students are more likely to come from families with lower levels of educational attainment and thus be first-generation college students. Many students also receive some form of federal financial aid.

The modal profile of the typical tribal college student, however, is a single mother with young children, living below the poverty level and often dependent on welfare or her extended family for support. This typical student attends part-time, and is academically underprepared for college, thus in need of some remedial courses. Child care and family services are common needs for these students that tribal colleges try to meet on their campuses. Lack of dependable transportation and available telephone services in isolated reservation areas also impact tribal students' ability to attend regularly or to communicate with college officials when problems arise and they cannot attend classes.

To help overcome these economic and educational obstacles, tribal colleges offer their students opportunities for self-determination and academic and career success. This is done through an array of diverse, comprehensive, academic and technical course offerings; a culturally infused curriculum that incorporates native values, beliefs, and customs; and a variety of academic and student support services. Another important characteristic is that at least 30 percent of the faculty are Native American and Alaska Natives as compared to less than one percent of all faculty at all other public postsecondary institutions. Thus, students have native role models and mentors, some of whom are tribal elders, who bring cultural awareness, sensitivity, and specific curricular expertise to the classroom. As native faculty, they also have a greater understanding of students' academic and personal situations.

Tribal colleges seek to prepare their students to succeed both inside and outside the reservation. In placing a significant value on the students' culture and incorporating it into the college experience in a holistic manner, tribal colleges and universities are able to achieve higher retention and graduation rates for Native American students than mainstream institutions can. In 1994 tribal colleges awarded 69 percent of their associate's degrees, 81 percent of the bachelor's degrees, and 67 percent of the master's degrees to Native American students. By comparison, only 0.9 percent of the associate's degrees, 0.5 of the bachelor's degrees, and 0.4 of the master's degrees awarded by all other institutions were earned by Native American students that year.

Institutional Types

Four types of tribal colleges and universities have emerged over the years for Native American students. The dominant type of tribal institution to emerge is that chartered by one or more federally recognized American Indian tribes. These receive funds from the federal government administered through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a subgroup of the Department of Interior. Additionally, two colleges are tribally controlled vocational technical institutions: Crownpoint Institute of Technology in New Mexico and United Tribes Technical College in North Dakota. These are funded under the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Act through the Department of Education.

Two other colleges, Haskell Indian Nations University in Kansas and Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute in New Mexico, fall into a third type as federally chartered institutions. The Bureau of Indian Affairs operates them and limits enrollment in these colleges solely to American Indians and Alaska Natives. One school, the Institute of American Indian Arts in New Mexico, is of the fourth type. It is chartered by Congress and governed by a board of trustees appointed by the president.

Accreditation and Funding

All tribal colleges either have full accreditation status from national accreditation boards, or are in the process of earning accreditation, which is the case for the newest institutions. Moreover, except for the third type, all other tribal colleges have open door admissions policies and serve non-Native Americans in their communities as well.

Two important organizations underwrite additional support for the tribal colleges. In 1972 the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) was organized by leaders of fledging tribal colleges to unite and promote their institutions. The AIHEC secured federal funding for tribal colleges by getting Congress to pass the Tribally Controlled Community College Assistance Act in 1978 (now referred to as the Tribally Controlled College or University Assistance Act). This act provides for construction, technical assistance, and endowment building funds. In keeping with the latter provision, the federal government matches every dollar raised by tribes for contribution to their institutional endowment funds. Also, the annual AIHEC meeting brings members together to discuss common issues and highlight examples of member colleges' programs and research by Native American scholars. In addition, the AIHEC publishes Tribal College, a quarterly journal. Another important source of financial support is the American Indian College Fund. It was created in 1989 with the active support of Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation, who procured financial contributions from numerous foundations and individual contributors to get it established.

A major funding change for tribal colleges occurred in 1998 with the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. An amendment to the act recognized tribal colleges and universities as special focus institutions serving a distinct population of students and placed them under Title V alongside historically black colleges and universities. Administered by the Department of Education, Title V enables tribal colleges to receive additional funds allocated by Congress.

Nonetheless, tribal colleges and universities remain seriously underfunded compared to the varied support received by mainstream higher education institutions. This will continue to be the case as these institutions increase in number and compete among themselves for the limited resources available to them. A shortage of funds already has led to inferior facilities due to delayed building maintenance and construction, limited classroom materials and laboratory equipment, few on-campus residence halls for students, and poorly paid administrators, faculty, and staff.

Despite scarcity of funding, tribal colleges and universities remain unique within higher education in several ways. Overall, these institutions remain locally and culturally controlled by their own tribes. Second, almost one-third of the faculty across the spectrum of tribal colleges is Native American. Third, they offer a distinctive curriculum that centers on their own native language and culture, some taught by tribal elders, to ensure that their cultural heritage is passed on to future generations. Fourth, they are responsive to the economic needs of their communities. Lastly, tribal colleges will continue to increase in number across states as more tribes seek self-determination and greater educational and career success for their members.


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NATIONAL CENTER FOR EDUCATION STATISTICS. 2001. American Indians and Alaska Natives in Postsecondary Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

PAVEL, D. MICHAEL; INGLEBRET, ELLA; and VAN DEN HENDE, MARK. 1999. "Tribal Colleges." In Two-Year Colleges for Women and Minorities: Enabling Access to the Baccalaureate, ed. Barbara Townsend. New York: Falmer.

STEIN, WAYNE. 1998. "Tribally Controlled Colleges." In American Indians and Alaska Natives in Postsecondary Education, ed. D. Michael Pavel, Rebecca Rak Skinner, Elizabeth Farris, Margaret Cahalan, John Tippeconnic, and Wayne Stein. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

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AMERICAN INDIAN HIGHER EDUCATION CONSORTIUM. 1999. Tribal Colleges: An Introduction. <www.aihec.org/intro.pdf>.


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