American Indian and Alaska Native students — who have the lowest college enrollment rate of any racial group, according to recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics — face numerous obstacles when seeking to earn a degree. One is affordability.
Among those who identified as American Indian and Alaska Native in 2018, 25.4% lived in poverty, the highest of any population, according to U.S. Census data. The median annual household income from 2015 to 2019 was $43,825 for American Indian and Alaska Native households, below all other group averages except Black households.
Meanwhile, the average price of in-state tuition at a ranked public college was $10,388 in 2021-2022, while private school tuition that year cost an average of $38,185, per U.S. News rankings data.
Since many Native students live in rural areas, they often face transportation issues and lack reliable broadband. In 2018, about 60% of people on tribal lands had fixed high-speed internet access, compared to 65% of Americans in rural areas and 97% of Americans in urban areas, according to the Federal Communications Commission.
Tribal colleges and universities, also known as TCUs, the first of which was established in 1968, aim to give Native students an opportunity to earn a degree close to home at a low cost and to create economic opportunities on reservations.
What Is a Tribal College or University?
These public institutions of higher education are charted by federally recognized Indian tribes or the federal government, with majority Native American or Alaska Native student enrollment.
“One of the great things about tribal colleges is that you get a culturally rounded education and you can complete a program debt-free,” says Carrie Billy, president and CEO of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.
Though designed to meet the needs of Native students and local reservations, the majority of TCUs are open to all students. The enrolled student population at TCUs — just over 15,200 in 2020 — was 79.1% American Indian or Alaska Native, 14.6% white and nearly 2% Hispanic, according to NCES data. Black and Asian students each represented less than 1% of the student population.
How Many Tribal Colleges and Universities Are There?
The AIHEC recognizes 35 accredited tribal colleges and universities, which are funded through the federal Tribally Controlled Colleges and Universities Assistance Act of 1978, across 14 states. Many TCUs are two-year institutions, but there’s a mix of schools, including some technical colleges, that offer certificates, associate degrees, bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees.
According to the American Indian College Fund, a nonprofit organization that provides scholarship support to Native students, Montana is home to the highest number of TCUs — seven — followed by North Dakota with five. Most are located in the Southwest and Plains regions, while states like Alaska, Idaho, Kansas, Oklahoma and Washington each have only one TCU. There are no TCUs on the East Coast.
Why Attend a Tribal College or University?
Finding a sense of belonging on college campuses can be challenging for Native students, as they don’t often see themselves represented in the curriculum or faculty at non-TCU institutions, says Cheryl Crazy Bull, president and CEO of the American Indian College Fund.
People who identified as American Indian or Alaska Native made up 1% or less of full-time faculty members at non-TCU institutions in 2020, according to recent NCES data. But 30% to 40% of faculty at TCUs are Native and from the local communities, Crazy Bull says.
Curricula at TCUs are based on the culture, traditions, spirituality and languages of the chartering tribe.
“The education experience is taught from a tribal worldview that resonates with the student,” Billy says. “Courses are relevant to the student, to their community, to nation building, to strengthening their tribe and themselves as individuals, community members, tribal members and family members.”
At the College of Menominee Nation in Wisconsin, for instance, courses cover topics such as Native American cultures, Menominee language, minority women in literature and Indigenous film.
Elmer Guy, president of Navajo Technical University in New Mexico, says many leaders of Indian nations are “concerned that we are losing the language and the culture.” So Navajo Tech offers a Diné language, culture and leadership degree.
“We prepare professionals so they can teach language or culture in schools,” Guy says. “And we try to create an opportunity where language and culture is important and you can a make a living having that knowledge.”
Many TCUs offer wraparound services like tutoring, service learning, child care, food pantries and financial aid support to help with the transition from high school to college. Other support services are grounded in cultural activities, ceremony and spirituality, Billy says.
“One tribal college student said to me, ‘We start every week with with a drum and end every week with a pipe,'” Billy adds. “That’s something that you just don’t see at a regular college — support for your identity as a Native person.”
Since affordability is a major barrier to a college education for many Native students — 87% qualified for financial aid in 2015-2016, with average grants received being $10,750, per recent NCES data — TCUs typically offer lower-cost tuition. The average cost of tuition and fees in 2021-2022 at a TCU was $3,744, according to AIHEC.
“They really try to price their tuition at a level that’s affordable for students so they can attend and complete a program that will lead to employment,” Billy says.
Some TCUs, like Diné College in Arizona, began offering tuition discounts due to the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic — even though TCUs face chronic challenges of underfunding. Returning full-time students in good standing, which means maintaining at least a 2.0 GPA, received free tuition in spring 2022. First-time, full-time students were eligible for 50% tuition and residential housing discounts in fall 2021.
A number of scholarships are also available through TCUs and local nonprofits.
“Many students are first-generation and they don’t necessarily understand what it takes to apply for financial aid or apply for scholarships,” Crazy Bull says. She recommends students refer to the College Fund website, which has a running list of available scholarships and tips for how to apply.
Since most TCUs are either on or near reservation lands, many students don’t have to travel far to earn their degree. The close proximity also allows for partnerships between the local communities and TCUs.
“We work to improve the economy on Indian communities and try to create jobs to help bring in revenue,” Guy says.
To find information about each TCU and the best fit, students can visit AIHEC or the College Fund online.
“The students who attend them and the TCUs themselves are very diverse,” Crazy Bull says. “Although the focus is often a place-based indigenous education experience, the diversity of students in that context is really good.”
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