Investment in Tribal Scholars Is an Investment in Our Collective Survival

Two educational thought leaders share the state of Native American Higher Education

Last Fall, we gathered with our TG&H Board members to pinpoint topics that they felt were critical to discuss in 2020. Board Member Jason Younker shared, “Of all the investments we can make, higher education must be our priority. Not only must the fortunate Tribes invest in their college students, but also in scholars from other Tribes as well. Investment in Tribal scholars from other sovereign domestic nations is an investment in our collective survival.”

In this article, we asked Younker, who is the Assistant Vice President and Advisor to the President on Sovereignty and Government-to-Government Relations at the University of Oregon and a citizen of the Coquille Indian Tribe, as well as Raving Strategic Partner Patrick Horning, Senior Manager of National Tribal Operations for the University of Phoenix, their take on higher education opportunities and challenges for Tribes.

What is the current state of specialized programs for Native Americans for higher education?

Jason: Few public institutions have worked directly with Tribal governments to create specific programs to meet Tribal needs. There are 573 sovereign domestic nations and each has unique cultures, histories and academic needs. To expect a public institution to create new programs that are tailored to meet Tribal needs is likely unreasonable and cost-prohibitive. Despite these challenges, in my experience and after working with numerous Tribal governments across the country, Tribes have echoed the common degree needs: hospitality and resource management; environmental sciences; law; teacher education; and business. That is not to say that there are no programs out there that have been created to meet regional Tribal needs.

What are the statistics of Native American students attaining degrees?

Patrick: Studies have determined that Native American students tend to struggle with college (as a demographic) more than others. In a study conducted by Mosholder and Goslin (2013), for students enrolled in a four-year university, only 15 percent of Native American students earned a bachelor’s degree, while Asians, Whites, African Americans and Hispanics graduated at rates between 51 percent to 24 percent. In addition, Thompson and Nitzarim (2013) also argued that Native American college students progress at a significantly lower rate than any other group, predominantly during the initial eight weeks of school. Their findings suggested that the primary causes were related to self-confidence and the stress associated with having no family on-site, which was prevalent for most students before leaving for college.

What are the critical factors that you have witnessed that lead to degree attainment?

Jason: A full tier of support, including Native undergraduates, graduates and faculty/staff. Most traditionally minded Native American students entering a four-year institution are going to experience exceptional culture shock. Cohort building or mentoring programs when students arrive are paramount! Undergraduates will look up to Junior and Senior students, who then look up to graduate students and graduate students emulate the successful Native American faculty and staff. We have learned for millennia by this process. If this infrastructure does not exist on a college campus, the odds are extremely challenging for Native students to find success. Native Americans often learn through observation, emulation and practice. Ultimately, knowledge transfer comes when an individual becomes a respected elder. If academic institutions can invest in cohort-minded and mentoring programs, Native American students will graduate successfully and on time.

Patrick: Providing a specific strategy that addresses and supports the cultural challenges that most Native American students tend to face has proven successful in the academic success for college students. In our case, we have a specific Tribal operations team that focuses on ensuring that students receive any applicable discounts, through our various partnerships, and funding from Tribes or Tribal enterprises such as casinos. In addition, the team helps prepare the student for class, taking into consideration possible cultural challenges and skill gaps. Once the student starts, we work intensely with them through the first four classes and as needed through the remainder of the program. This is part of the strategy we use that helps our Tribal students achieve higher progression rates than our non-Tribal students, despite the national trend. Fryberg, Covarrubias and Burack (2013) maintained the disproportionate levels of academic success amongst Native American college students significantly declined while overall academic success increased by up to 40 percent when the student’s sense of self (encouraged independence, choice and self-expression) increased and negative stereotypical beliefs and actions of classmates declined.

What are the unique challenges or issues that you have seen contributing to dropouts?

Jason: Many students, Native and non-Native, find themselves inundated with a large campus and a confusing culture change from their home communities. For Native Americans this is even more pronounced as we are the most isolated of underrepresented populations on college campuses. Sometimes students will choose a school without having visited the campus. Tribal governments that support campus visits are seeing greater success in graduation rates for their communities. At the very least, Native American students should attend schools that recognize and respect the sovereignty of Tribal nations. If there is a Native student association, a longhouse or meeting space where they can find cohort comfort, these schools graduate Native Americans at a greater rate than their peers. The reality is that Native American graduates become Tribal leadership. If academic institutions invest in Native scholarship, this breeds success within a Tribe and might pay dividends in the future. If academic institutions do not invest first, they will have a long wait until collaborative opportunities arrive.

What makes Native American students different, and what support, programs and changes do you support moving forward?

Jason: At most public institutions, Native Americans make up less than one percent of the student body. We arrive at college with little experience. We are usually the first in our families to either graduate high school or attend college. Assistance from parents may not be available. In some of the more remote locations, adequate Internet and other technologies are extremely limited. How does a student submit the Common Application, the largest online college application, where you can apply to multiple institutions with one application, without Internet connectivity? How does a student apply for Federal Financial Aid, which is online, without assistance from a parent or guardian? How does a Tribal student apply for college without adequate Internet access? How does a Tribal scholar prepare for college without a computer? No other population has these unfortunate circumstances to experience at the rate that Native Americans have. Just getting to college is challenging, and once you arrive on campus, then another set of challenges arrive. I am a strong believer that a university must send Tribal recruiters to reservations. Universities should be frequent and familiar faces on the reservation. A successful Native American alumni association will work wonders in recruiting as well.

Trade schools, vocational/technical schools and “non-degree” careers, where do these fit in?

Patrick: No one school, degree, certificate or training is the best fit for every team member. Trade, vocational and technical schools play a part in the necessary knowledge for some jobs in the casino industry. It is important for team members to remember that non-degree or job specific trainings could be worth some college credits if they decide a degree is a good fit in the future.

Jason: Vocational/technical school degrees are extremely empowering. Not only are these needed skills in our communities, but once these scholars are parents, they tend to encourage their children to attend a four-year school for formal college degrees. A degree at any level breeds a new generation of academic success. Our traditional cultures and communities were obliterated within a century of American colonialism. It will take many generations for us to rebuild.

Are there trends for future generations/post-millennials that might not fit the current model of education: e.g. what are students saying is important to them, and how do universities adapt to these younger generations?

Jason: The bachelor’s degree is equivalent to a high school degree. A graduate degree is almost necessary to make a resonating impact within any community. That is the reality of America today. The first step for any Native student is to graduate from high school and then always keep higher education or vocational training in mind. Never say “never” to education because “never” is a very long time. The more education you have, the more doors that will be open to you. If a Native student is able to attend college, the only choice is where. You must attend. Each of us has ancestors who sacrificed and survived so that we have the choices we do today. Not becoming who you can disrespects the sacrifices of your ancestors.

Patrick: Meeting the student on their level is vital to the success of every student, especially those who do not fit in the traditional “college student” mold. This can incorporate cultural differences, location (rural settings vs. urban), strong or limited Internet access and ability to communicate or participate in class during work hours. Helping them achieve early academic success, at least through the fourth class, provides a solid foundation and eliminates the desire from many students to drop out.

Communication and access are two of the challenges that students often complain about. Forcing a student, especially the younger ones, to communicate via phone or email can prove frustrating to both the student and the school. Texting has proven to be very beneficial as students can reply immediately without opening their email or calling back.

Online classrooms are becoming more mobile-user friendly so students can do homework and participate from their phone while on a bus, on break at work or just hanging out. Convenience and intuitive interaction are everything if schools want post-millennial students to engage.

Besides funding, how else can Tribes support their future generations in their quest for higher education?

Jason: Tribal governments need to advertise every position of leadership they have within the organization. College degree-attaining students will become the next generation of leaders. Tribal councils, it is your responsibility to make sure your nation survives into the future. That takes strategic investment, mostly through support and tracking of your best and brightest. When I returned to Oregon with my Master’s degree in Education, my Tribal council asked me to attend the University of Oregon and study anthropology. This was 1994 when Kennewick Man was the hot topic. My Tribe needed an anthropologist in the room to ensure that we were not the next victims of overzealous scientific inquiry. I recommend that Tribes identify their scholars early in their high school careers. Provide (paid) internships within the organization so that interns will understand the nature of our complex organizations and, from that experience, they might find a career path they enjoy. If a scholar goes to college, give them directed support. Always ask them to consider degrees in areas that the Tribe will need in the future. As students pursue their college degrees, place them in paid summer internships within their degree of study. Once a student graduates, they will be familiar with the Tribal organization or department. I have seen a remarkable change over the last 20 years where Tribal students are wanting to return to their home communities. They are taking more responsibility in the future of their Tribal government. In the past, college was where we lost our scholars. Today, successful Tribes are investing in their scholars to fill future positions, and they are mining colleges for other Native American scholars as well.