Alaska Natives could soon have more educational opportunities and expanded access to health care, thanks to a partnership between the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC) and Alaska Pacific University (APU). Their goal is to establish the nation’s 37th and Alaska’s second tribal college, this one to be based in Anchorage with distance-learning and/or satellite campus components.
The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium has long been committed to addressing the need for more healthcare workers in rural Alaska, especially American Indian and Alaska Native workers, by providing training programs. “We have needs all across the Alaska tribal health system related not just to direct providers, such as nurses and health aides, but also lab techs, radiology techs, pastors, social workers, psychologists, physicians. We also need business people, engineers, environmental health people, computer people, education specialists,” said Robert Onders, ANTHC medical director of community and health systems improvement.
The consortium’s Behavioral Health Aide Program trains village-based counselors, and its Dental Health Aide program, established in 2004 and run in partnership with Iḷisaġvik Tribal College, spearheaded a national movement to train dental therapists to provide preventive and routine dental care in underserved communities. A recent article in the journal Health Affairs documented a shortfall of 2,825 AI/AN dentists in those communities.
Alaska Pacific University is a small university in Anchorage, virtually next door to ANTHC headquarters. It offers several bachelor’s degree programs, a master of arts, master of business administration, executive MBAs with focuses in communication technology and strategic leadership, and bachelor’s and master’s degrees in counseling psychology, environmental science, and outdoor and environmental education. Graduate certificates are also offered in entrepreneurship and investments, and the school has a doctoral program in counseling psychology.
Its physical proximity to ANTHC and its health sciences and business offerings make APU an obvious choice as a partner, Onders said.
Carrie Billie, president and CEO of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, explained that a college cannot simply decide that it is going to become a tribal college.
“Being a tribal college has to start from the tribal governments, the tribal leadership making that commitment and recognizing the need and exercising that sovereignty and self-determination.
“In this case the endeavor started from ANTHC saying that we, as tribal people, recognize the need to have our own institution of higher education. So then they asked, ‘how are we going to do that?’ And so that’s where the partnership came in. That’s something that’s really important to keep in mind about a tribal college. That it’s created by and for American Indians and Alaska Natives,” she said.
Alaska Pacific University currently has 500 students, 17 percent of whom are AI/AN. One of the federal requirements for an institution to be recognized as a tribal college and have access to funding such as that available under the Tribally Controlled College and University Assistance Act is that 50 percent of the student body be AI/AN students. According to Billie and Onders, there is sufficient unmet educational need in Alaska to meet that requirement easily.
director of the Board of Trustees for APU and chief of staff at ANTHC. She said the college would probably expand to bring in more AI/AN students, while remaining firmly committed to continuing to serve the students who are already enrolled.
Onders estimates the transition will take three to five years, a timeline Billie said is realistic. The college would have to meet federal requirements and be accredited through the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities in order for students to be eligible for Pell grants and other federal funding, and to make it possible for them to transfer credits to other colleges.
With those changes, “APU in my mind would not exist as the institution that it is now. It would be transformed by the tribal people into a tribal college,” Billie said.
As the transition goes forward and the tribal college curriculum develops, explained ANTHC spokeswoman Michelle Weston, “we will incorporate Alaska Native values, knowledge and language into our courses. An example of traditional knowledge ANTHC incorporates into existing programs is the highly successful LEO app, which incorporates traditional knowledge and climate change observations at the tribal level into a iPhone app, which then connects the tribal environmental observers in remote arctic communities with technical experts, who can map and provide consultation services on the observations.”
Establishing a new tribal college, Billie said, reinforces the need to continue to work closely with Congress on funding. “There’s one pot of federal funding [for tribal colleges],” she said, “and it’s based on what they call the Indian student count. That’s the FTE, or full time equivalent, of all enrolled members—you have to be an enrolled member in a federally-recognized Indian tribe or a biological child. So they add up all those credits and then divide it by the number of credits coming from each college and that’s how the per-student funding for operations is determined.”
Currently federal funding under this formula is $7,191 per student, but that’s more than $800 per student lower than the amount authorized by Congress because the full $8,000 has never been approved in the budget. “Any time you add a new school, that’s going to cut the per-student level down, so we’ve got to work really hard with the congressional delegations and with Congress and the administration to increase the overall funding level so new colleges can be added without harming existing institutions,” Billie said.
But, she said, “Tribal colleges really support more tribes exercising sovereignty and establishing their own institutions of higher education, so we do everything we can to help new tribal colleges form. We’re excited about this, as an exercise of sovereignty, self-determination, and sustainability” by the diverse tribes represented by ANTHC.
Pearl Brower, president of Alaska’s existing tribal college, Iḷisaġvik College in Utqiaġvikm, said that even though they do not have much information on the proposal, they are supportive of tribal colleges for the amazing opportunities they offer. Iḷisaġvik College, she noted, also has a partnership with ANTHC for their dental health aide therapist program, which they took over from the University of Washington, and they are working with ANTHC to develop a behavioral health certificate program.