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The Myth of Indian Scholarships and the Native Dropout Epidemic

Native American students who want to go to college have an unlimited amount of possibility. If they study hard and get good grades, they can attend any college or university in the United States. Unfortunately, few high school counselors and teachers are telling them that. Fifty percent of Indian students drop out of high school.

Indian students who want to go to college have an unlimited amount of possibility. If they study hard and get good grades, they can attend any college or university in the United States, including the Ivy Leagues. Unfortunately, few high school counselors and teachers are telling them that. Fifty percent of Indian students drop out of high school. I often wonder if the racist attitudes of school people will ever change. It has not in my lifetime, which is almost three-quarters of a century now.

It seems to me that counselors have three different functions—counseling, discipline, and career preparation. The first two take so much time that they only once in a while get to the third one. Counselors who have to deal with absenteeism, students who have been suspended for bad behavior, and the like—all the negative things—are in the wrong position to help students prepare for college or vocational school, the positive outcomes.

Only 17 percent of Indian students go on to college from high school. And since 50 percent of these high school students drop out before graduation, only 8.5 percent of Indian students enter college. This compares to 70 percent nationally. Thus Indian enrollment in college is only 12 percent of non-Indian enrollment. And 82 percent of these Indian college students drop out before they graduate from college; they never earn a degree. For every Indian college graduate per unit of population, there are 30 non-Indian graduates. And the gap has been getting larger over the past 40 years, not smaller.

Indian schools are supposed to be producing blue-collar people, not white collar ones. Young idealistic teachers who come in with new-fangled ideas are sometimes run off the campuses. At the four Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) boarding high schools where I did my dissertation, all had some idealistic Anglo teachers who showed up right out of teacher colleges, eager to teach Indians. A few of them never came back when they went home to Iowa or South Carolina for Christmas. Out of 168 teachers that I interviewed on the four campuses (Chemawa, Stewart, Sherman, and Phoenix), no more than 30 were career people with BIA schools.

The same thing happened when I was at Bacone College. At least two of the new faculty went home from Oklahoma to New Jersey or Pennsylvania for Christmas, and we never heard from them again. We had to hire new people in the middle of the year.

A handful of colleges report low dropout rates for Indians, ranging from 10 percent to 25 percent; they are mostly Ivy League colleges with high admissions criteria. Among them are Harvard, Stanford, and Yale. But most colleges have dropout rates of 60 percent to 90 percent for Indians.

One of the best studies of the Indian dropout rate ever done was at the University of New Mexico. Dr. Ted Jojola and his wife Dr. Delia Alcantar found that the cumulative dropout rate after 20 semesters—ten years—was 83 percent.

Dr. Ardy Bowker at Montana State University did perhaps the best piece of research on the Indian dropout rate 20 years ago. She found that the dropout rate for Indian females in high school was 51 percent. Northern Arizona University has a dropout rate that varies from 75 percent to 85 percent.

My next book, The American Indian Dropout, will document this with citations from some 350 related studies and reports. Since lots of people have covered up the statistics on the Indian dropout for decades, I suspect some of them will attack me on this report as well. I have been attacked by the best cover-uppers. Very few people want to face the truth; even fewer want to do anything about it.

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One of the biggest frustrations we face at Catching the Dream is people wanting to apply for Indian scholarships. Once we explain to them that there are only eight such Indian scholarships with any real money (we draw the line at giving away $20,000 or more a year), some of them get frustrated and give up. We tell them FastWeb, the most comprehensive scholarship site, now has 1.5 million entries in its database. Some of them act as if they don’t want to hear that.

It’s like they feel they should get some of the mythical Indian money at the end of the rainbow, even if they are not enrolled in a tribe and can’t prove they are Indian. Getting Indian money is part of their Indian heritage, or what they think is their heritage.

A few of them give us the same kind of story that Elizabeth Warren gave a few weeks ago—that her grandmother had high cheekbones, proving she was Indian. That is so racist and stereotypical that her opponent is now throwing it in her face on a daily basis. It may cause her to lose her Senate race in Massachusetts against a Tea Party Republican.

We almost never hear from high school counselors. Most of the time we hear from students, followed in frequency by mothers. We hear from fathers, but not that often. They often tell us their grandparents or great-grandparents were Indians. Sometimes they don’t know what tribe. When they allege to know the tribe, about 75 percent of the time it is Cherokee. That Cherokee great-grandmother of that blond blue-eyed woman is so widespread as not to be believed.

Some of them tell us they are descendants of two or even three tribes, and they want us to tell them which tribe they should enroll in. They get frustrated when we tell them we couldn’t possibly know, from the scant information they have given us, what tribe to look for. If they tell us they are Cherokees from Illinois, we are really stumped, since the Cherokees are either from North Carolina or Oklahoma. If they tell us the tribe, we are glad to tell them how to contact their tribal enrollment office.

We love to hear of the success stories, though. Isaiah Rodriguez, Laguna, came to see me in January of 2008. He had been a high school dropout from the ages of 16 to 21. But one day he woke up and said, “Is that all there is?” He was working as a low-end cook in a restaurant in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

I spent two hours with Isaiah, showing him how to find scholarships. When he came back with his application, he had found 102 scholarships, the highest number any student has found in our 26 years of existence. He applied to all of them, and won 70. He just got his college diploma from the University of Hawaii a few weeks ago.

We do all we can to open the eyes of the Native American students to the real world of scholarships. But it is like an ant trying to push an elephant. We mail to the high school counselors every year, and have for over 20 years. But it does little good. At this point, out of 1,080 counselors at Indian high schools, we have gotten contact in the past two years with exactly 16 people.

My theory is that there is a huge elephant out there started by Capt. Richard Henry Pratt at Carlisle in 1878. It’s called assimilation, meaning Indians should learn English, how to make beds and plow fields, and not much else. Not much has changed. College is not for them.

Dr. Dean Chavers is director of Catching the Dream, a national scholarship organization in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His last book was Racism in Indian Country, published by Peter Lang. His book before that was two volumes, 800 pages, and is called Modern American Indian Leaders, published by Mellen Press. Peter Lang will publish his next book, The American Indian Dropout, in 2013.