American Indian college students heading back to school this fall face tough challenges. Some are common to all college students and some are unique to Native students. Many American Indian students begin their post-secondary education at a tribal or a community college, so this discussion focuses primarily on those institutions.
Isolation and Lack of Role Models and Mentors
“For American Indian students, probably the biggest challenge when they are attending mainstream universities is finding people who are similar to them and understand what they’re going through,” says Sarah EchoHawk, Pawnee, CEO of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society.
Most community college students, says Alberto Olivas, Mexica (Aztec)/Huichol, director of the Center for Civic Participation at Maricopa Community Colleges, live within six miles of the school they attend. American Indian students are the exception. “Other students have families and support services that Native American kids do not have so far from home. They don’t know what resources are there, don’t know the community, don’t know where to look for quality housing,” Olivas says.
Some colleges have American Indian student centers, clubs and other formal institutions to help students, but others do not.
“One of the really great things about tribal colleges is wrap-around support,” says Carrie Billy, Navajo, president and CEO of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium. “The college takes the place of a family in terms of supporting students through college, providing support like gas money, giving them a quiet place to study, teaching them study skills and providing day care for their kids. But probably the most important part is cultural and spiritual.”
EchoHawk says another part of feeling isolated is that American Indian students do not see faculty who are like them. An important service of AISES is providing advisors for STEM students, but often the advisors are not Native American. The organization has just received a $1.5 million National Science Foundation grant to increase the number of AISES members who complete their undergraduate and graduate degrees and go on to pursue faculty positions in STEM disciplines at United States colleges and universities.
Scottsdale Community College
Desiree Flores, 18, earned her associate’s degree two weeks before receiving her high school diploma. On the left is Scottsdale Community College President Dr. Jan Gehler; on the right Ana Cuddington, director of Maricopa Community College’s American Indian Program and faculty overseer of the Hoop of Learning Program.
Inadequate Student Housing
Community colleges traditionally do not offer housing. “American Indian students end up in the college community without documentation or a credit history, so they can only access poor quality housing, often in blighted and dangerous neighborhoods. Housing can cause really significant problems that result in students dropping out of school,” says Olivas. Tribes and schools need to work out strategies, such as identifying good housing and neighborhoods for students, or even leasing blocks of apartments and renting them to students, to alleviate this problem, he says.
Many students are not college-ready, explains Cheryl Crazy Bull, Sicangu-Lakota, president of the American Indian College Fund. College readiness is knowing what college is like and what is expected of you. “We’ve encountered students who were coming to college and didn’t know they were going to be responsible for attending classes and asking for help if they needed help,” Crazy Bull says. “School is starting in a few weeks and we have students just now who are looking for funding. That’s an aspect of college readiness. You have to get ready for college ahead of time.” Native students are often first generation, so they don’t have someone in their family to tell them what college is like, she says.
Diné College cross-country runner.
Insufficient Academic Readiness
Tribal and community colleges are open-door institutions of higher education: they accept all students who apply. Roughly 70 percent of their students need developmental education in at least one area. Developmental education classes present students with two problems: it is discouraging to have to take classes that will not count toward a degree, and those classes cost money.
“Traditionally students have to pay per-credit tuition for developmental education courses,” says Olivas. “New rules for financial aid mean students have to get through their developmental courses as soon as possible. We’re looking at ways to provide developmental education that either costs less or is cost free, so people can get up to speed without spending down all of their financial aid dollars.”
Billy says that one strategy that works is to focus on problem-based learning and to integrate developmental education into credit-bearing coursework. AIHEC has a grant from the NSF to promote problem-based learning in tribal colleges “because we know that students who engage in research and problem-based learning that’s relevant to their homes, their communities, their culture do much better than students who don’t have that kind of curriculum,” she says.