For years I have tried to find data on Indian students—college preparation, high school completion rates, college entrance rates, college pre-test scores (ACT and SAT), college dropout rates, and college completion rates. I have also tried to find information on the fields that Indian students majored in.
Most of the time, that data is not available. I have often had to collect my own data. The feds and the states say the Indian sample is too few to bother with. How can four million Indians not be enough to count? The U. S. Education Department said this less than five years ago.
The American College Testing (ACT) recently came out with its first-ever report on the academic preparation of Indian students for college study. It is called “The Condition of College & Career Readiness 2013: American Indian Students.” They report, “Within subjects, ACT has found that students who take the recommended core curriculum are more likely to be ready for college or career than those who do not.”
It also means they have taken four years of English and three years of social studies and science. The really well prepared student will know how to use computers, will have written term papers all the way through high school, and will have read 300 or more books in preparation for college.
The books will be in the classics, philosophy, literature, biology, chemistry, biography, autobiography, and history. Five years ago I published a book called Reading for College to give students and parents guidance in the area of reading. It is a very hard sell to get an Indian school library to buy this book. We have sold fewer than 100 of them. Our Indian students are leaving high school without adequate knowledge of the world to know how to survive in it, much less prosper and do well.
The ACT results are much worse than I anticipated. And I knew they would be bad. Only 3 percent of Indian students were well prepared for college in the field of math—the worst area. This means they have taken four or five years of math, including Algebra I, Algebra II, Geometry, and Trigonometry. For science, engineering, medicine, and math graduates, it also means they have had Calculus.
ACT reports only 8 percent of Indian students were qualified in science, 15 percent in reading, and 20 percent in English. Only 10 percent of Indian students met all the benchmarks for college—English, reading, math, and science.
The benchmarks for Indian students to do well in college in the following areas were:
English 18 (40th percentile)
Social Sciences 22 (55th percentile)
Math 22 (55th percentile)
Biology 23 (58th percentile)
The percentage of Indian students preparing for the fastest growing career fields was very low. The percentages of Indian students planning to go into these fields were:
Education, 6 percent
Computers, 2 percent
Community Services, 7 percent
Management, 5 percent
Marketing, 1 percent
I started collecting data on this topic 40 years ago. When I was president of Bacone College, I collected three years of data on Bacone entering freshmen. The average ACT score was a 13, which is the twentieth percentile. This means that there were more students below a 13 than there were above it. The student who scored a 20, the 50th percentile, was rare. None scored as high as a 25, which is basically the 65th percentile.
Then 15 years ago I did one of the few studies of the college preparation of Indian students. Out of 5,002 students in the study, only a tiny handful were ready for college. I estimated that fewer than 10 percent were really ready for college. Only 4 percent had taken calculus, which is mandatory for anyone going into math, engineering, medicine, and science.
A few weeks ago, the State of New Mexico came out with a report that said that 54 percent of high school graduates who went on to college had to take remedial courses in college. For Indian students, the percentage was higher, at 59 percent. A student who was required to take one remedial course in college had only a 17 percent chance of finishing college. And a student who had to take two remedial courses in college had only a 5 percent chance of ever earning a college degree.
The dropout rates for Indians in college are very high. My next book, The American Indian Dropout, will show that the national completion rate for Indians in college is only 18 percent. There are a tiny handful of colleges, including Stanford, Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, and Arizona State, that have high completion rates. The other 300+ have Indian dropout rates between 65 percent and 85 percent. When the push for getting Indian students into college started in the 1970s, the Ivies were determined to do it right. They had strict limitations on the people who got in and have maintained completion rates of 80 percent to 90 percent. The only one that has changed its failure rate to success is Arizona State, and it was the work of one person. Peterson Zah, the former chairman of the Navajo Nation, completely turned that institution around between 1995 and 2000.
Who is to blame here? Is it the tribe, the parents, the school, the school board, the community, or what? My answer is simple. It is the school.
The ones who have made up their minds to improve have done so. They include Navajo Prep, Wellpinit, Chugach, Mount Adams, Galena, Fort McDowell, Cass Lake, Barona, Lac Courte Oreilles, Mount Edgecumbe, Nebo, St. Michael, Salmon River, Southampton, and Southern Ute. Both Wellpinit and Navajo Prep have sent 100 percent of students on to college for a given year.
The other 730 Indian high schools have done little to improve. They are still stuck in the 1950s. They are convinced that Indian students cannot learn the basics of college skills, so they do not include them in the curriculum. Indian students get to the 12th grade, then decide they want to go to college. So they apply and get admitted. But most of them do not make it past the first year—six out of seven never earn a college degree.
Any other ethnic group would be picketing, disrupting board meetings, making demands on school principals, and giving counselors a piece of their minds. But as my friend Ernie says, Indians are too nice. We don’t want to make a fuss. We don’t want to cause trouble. So we let another generation of our kids fall through the cracks.
Instead of taking Geometry and Trig, our kids are taking welding, driver’s education, general math, and bonehead English. The counselors need to do their job. We need to get our kids ready for college. Vocational stuff is old and outdated.
Seventy-eight of us took over Alcatraz Island in 1969 because of this problem. To my frustration, we are still stuck about where we were then. Not a whole lot has gotten better. Our numbers have gone up. In 1969 there were only about 2,000 Indian students in college in the whole United States. Today, that number is about 70,000. But their success rate is still very low. We need more Indian doctors, nurses, teachers, biologists, engineers, lawyers, and business people in a bad way.
Every time I hear about an Indian elder having to wait one or two days to see a doctor, it breaks my heart. And when they die from lack of medical treatment, I get mad. The non-Indians who come to Indian Country only stay one or two years. Then they run back to the city.
We need to be more pushy, people. We’ve been nice long enough. It’s time we stood up and insisted that the schools get our kids ready for life. Our people need it.
Dr. Dean Chavers is director of Catching the Dream, a scholarship program in Albuquerque. CTD also makes grants to Indian schools to help them improve. Contact him at CTD4DeanChavers@aol.com. He was the first mainland coordinator for the Indian occupation of Alcatraz in 1969.