A new report from the Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCSSE) at the University of Texas at Austin adds to the growing body of research that demonstrates the inherent value and role of Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) within the United States higher education system.
The report titled, “Preserving Culture and Planning for the Future: An Exploration of Student Experiences at Tribal Colleges” provides a snapshot of Native student experiences at TCUs and sheds light on how the institutions’ culture-based mission cultivates an increased sense of belonging, more student engagement and importantly, a deeper understanding of students’ tribal culture and heritage.
TCUs “are truly fascinating institutions and the work they do about keeping culture alive and making the students feel valued for where they come from is simply amazing,” said Dr. Evelyn N. Waiwaiole, executive director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement. “We at other institutions could learn from them about what they’re doing about culture and about what they’re doing about valuing people for where they come from. We can truly learn.”
In the report’s forward, American Indian College Fund president and CEO Dr. Cheryl Crazy Bull highlights TCUs as places “where kinship and history provide roots, where relationship with creation is normal and where identity is respected.”
Many of the nation’s nearly three dozen TCUs exist in remote and rural areas, offering access to education to students largely from more than 250 federally recognized Indian tribes, according to the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.
While more than 14 percent of Native adults have a college degree because of TCUs and increased support for Native students in higher education, gaps persist, Crazy Bull said.
“In order to increase the number of Native students who complete college, more students need support,” Crazy Bull said. “With continued investments from tribal colleges and additional investments from outside the colleges, this gap can be narrowed and more students can succeed.”
Through conducting focus groups and collecting data from the 2017 Survey of Entering Student Engagement (SENSE) and the 2018 Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE), the Center’s report found that, given the challenges Native students face, 73 percent of entering TCU students note that their self-image or confidence improved “a lot” or “a moderate amount” due to their institutions’ focus on native language and culture.
In addition, TCUs’ persistent emphasis on culture and belonging starting at the beginning of students’ matriculation led 77 percent of SENSE survey respondents to strongly agree or agree that their college takes a holistic approach to student development of mind, body and spirit.
Speaking to TCU’s role in the preservation of tribal languages, 10 percent of TCU students reported fluency in a Native American language, the report said, but 45 percent indicated that they planned to become fluent while at their college.
Other report findings illustrated student experiences with TCU faculty and staff, their utilization of support services and challenges they face, including outcome comparisons to Native students at non-tribal institutions.
-Seventy-six percent of TCU students said a college staff member learned their name in the first three weeks of class, and 70 percent said they had discussed ideas from their readings or class with their instructors outside of class time;
-CCSSE respondents from TCUs were more likely to take advantage of tutoring services and skills labs, participate in a service-learning activity and prepare two or more drafts of a paper before final submission than peers at non-tribal colleges;
-More than one-third of TCU students are first-generation college students, people who work and have dependents and are, on average, around age 28;
-Forty-nine percent of students said a lack of reliable transportation could potentially cause them to withdraw from a class or the college altogether;
-Forty-nine percent of students also indicated that limited access to a computer or electronic device and a limited access to the internet could factor into a decision to withdraw from a class or the college.
-Thirty-four percent of students worried within the last 12 months about whether their food would run out before they could receive money to buy more groceries, and 25 percent ran out of food within the past year and did not have enough financial resources to buy more.
TCUs such as Salish Kootenai College and Stone Child College are combatting these challenges by offering students transportation between their reservation to the college and providing healthy snacks and food resources through food pantry initiatives.
“Every place else, we’re constantly talking about ‘We need to be culturally competent,’ instead of, ‘Here, it’s automatic. This is what we do. We try to restore and value culture. We’re not teaching it; it’s what we do,’” said Waiwaiole on what predominantly White institutions and other schools can learn from TCUs.
The Center’s work for the report was funded by the nonprofit Ascendium Education Group, which also funded Achieving the Dream’s (ATD) efforts to provide coaching to the TCUs following CCSSE’s data collection on their students’ experiences, Waiwaiole said.
“So they really did a three-prong approach in this and that’s very, very unusual for funders and grant makers to think about how do we think about this comprehensively,” she said.
Cindy Lopez, ATD’s director of Tribal College and University programs, said her organization is now working to support TCUs’ data-building capacity in order to establish an evidence-based culture. Her work entails helping TCUs use data from sources such as CSSE, IPEDS, AIMS and the National Student Clearinghouse.
“We help them know what are important metrics to look at to identify students at risk and to look at trends of performance,” Lopez said. “It’s building a data culture and then helping them know what are some of the national best practices for whatever their priority areas are.”
Some institutions are receiving coaching around onboarding to the National Student Clearinghouse so that they gain access to key longitudinal student data over time and so that other institutions can verify that students come from that TCU, for instance, Lopez added.
Additional ATD coaching could focus on advising, teaching and learning and best practices around research and evidence. A partnership between ATD and the American Institute of Research (AIR) also facilitates access to online courses with AIR to help strengthen and support institutional research staff’s understanding around how to present and manage data.
“Ultimately, they are in the driver seat to decide how and if these practices make sense to implement in the context of their institution,” Lopez said, adding, “They are doing an amazing job. They’ve really taken building data capacity and run with it.”
Waiwailoe acknowledges that many have forgotten about some of the things that make TCUs unique and that the Center’s report is among efforts to put their work and mission for their students’ success “out there front and center.”
“We have to put [TCUs] out there and make sure that they are talked about … that they serve a vital role in serving thousands of students,” she said. “What we can learn is just trying to value [students] – and this isn’t just Native American students at any non-Tribal college, it’s any student that walks into higher education trying to truly understand where they’ve come from and valuing them there.”
Tiffany Pennamon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow her on Twitter @tiffanypennamon.
This article first appeared in Diverse: Issues In Higher Education.