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Tribal Colleges Give Remarkable Return on Investment

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Dear Ms. Sarah Butrymowicz of The Hechinger Report,

I’m still waiting for your retraction. It’s been more than three months since you published your deeply flawed article, “Tribal colleges give poor return on more than $100 million a year in federal money,” and I’m waiting for you to admit to cherry-picking quotes and arriving at sensational conclusions. I thought that by now the published rebuttals of your piece would’ve prompted you to recant your story, but it seems you’re determined to stand by your incomplete analysis. Yet before I write off your journalistic credibility based upon flawed assertions such as “tribal colleges often have abysmal success rates,” I’m compelled to do my part to help you see the error of your ways. The question is: What’s the best way to teach you how to listen?

Would you listen if I reminded you that Marybeth Gasman and Ginger Stull of the Huffington Post thought your article should have been titled, “Tribal Colleges give remarkable return on a meager $100 million a year in federal funding”? Gasman and Stull cite that tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) “serve roughly 30,000 full and part-time students,” pointing out that $100 million divided among all of these students is about $3,333 per student per year. They also note that 20 percent of TCU students are non-Native, meaning that no federal dollars are contributed towards the cost of their education. Moreover, some TCUs “appear to over spend” on the “services that they offer to the public,” because they are dedicated to the communities they serve.

Would you listen if I told you that your comparison of the costs of a degree at a TCU and one at Harvard University or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is fundamentally flawed? Your point may have been to show that a degree at the Institute of American Indian Arts costs the federal government more than a degree at the other two institutions, but the premise of your comparisons misrepresents reality. While the 34 TCUs collectively receive only $100 million annually, in the past few years, Harvard and MIT have each received up to $656 million and $489 million, respectively. Moreover, on average, a degree at a TCU costs a student $14,566 annually, which is below the national average of $20,234 and far from Harvard’s $65,150 or MIT’s $61,030 annual rate. Since your article was examining the return on federal investment, you must admit that TCUs are succeeding at elevating Native lives at a cost unmatched by those schools.

Would you listen if I quoted Cheryl Crazy Bull’s response to your work titled, “Why Tribal Colleges Matter”? Crazy Bull, president and CEO of the American Indian College Fund, shows that “TCUs have been remarkably successful in helping students overcome incredible barriers to entering college and have over time consistently helped students to achieve their educational goals and attain successful employment.” To illustrate her point, she cites the fact that 28.9 percent of all Native people live below the poverty line, and that only one in 20 TCU scholarship applicants could afford college without financial assistance. Furthermore, Native youth statistically have the lowest high school graduation rates in the nation, which helps to explain the necessity of TCU students adding semesters of remediation coursework. The combination of federal funding and TCUs’ open enrollment affords all Natives an opportunity to attend a college that appreciates their struggles, honors their culture and is committed to improving their communities.

What if I cited and brought to your attention the litany of TCU success stories? Surely you must applaud the fact that 59 percent of all TCU students are the first in their family to attend college, and that 56 percent transfer to another institution to complete their degrees—more than double the national community college average of 25 percent. What if I reminded you that Navajo Technical University has a 91 percent graduation rate or that the College of Menominee Nation, where I teach, has contributed over $37 million to the local economy? Or what if I asked you to revisit the story of Breanne Lugar, whom you wrote about in your article? You cited that the mother of five reluctantly attended Sitting Bull College and almost immediately advanced her career. To quote your own words, “But after a semester of classes toward a degree in business administration helped her move from a job as blackjack dealer to the finance department of the tribal casino, Lugar, a sophomore, has become a fervent advocate of the college.” Lugar’s advocacy of a TCU is not anomalous in your piece. In fact, you don’t cite a single Native who’s critical of TCUs in your entire article.

What if I told you about the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975, which granted Native people a voice in the policies that affect them? Would it embarrass you to realize that, by basing your valuation of Native educational institutions on the standards of the American over-culture, you echo some of the horrifically flawed rationale that resulted in Indian boarding schools? What’s absent from your article is how you purport to quantify the value of indigenous language revitalization, culture-based learning, or the ideals of tribal sovereignty that are cultivated in TCU classrooms.

Did any of these points cause you to second-guess your reporting? If they didn’t, then the only recourse I have left is to invite you to further your own education. Your author biography states that you received your bachelor’s degree from Tufts University and a master’s from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, and, although they respectively received $122.2 million and $646 million in federal funding in 2011 alone, these institutions didn’t instill you with the value of Native culture, an appreciation for the educational barriers of poverty, or an awareness of the admirable goals of open-enrollment institutions.

Therefore I’d like to formally invite you to fill your educational gaps at a TCU of your choosing. We may not have the federal funding that your prior educational intuitions enjoyed, but we’re committed to improving the lives of every student who walks through our doors. Your cultural awareness may be lacking and your empathy deficiency may be great, but we’ll direct some of our limited resources to helping you improve your quality of life.

In the meantime, I’ll be waiting for your retraction.

Ryan Winn is the Humanities Department chair at College of Menominee Nation. He has been recognized as the American Indian College Fund’s Faculty Member of the Year and is the author of Tribal College Journal’s monthly web-exclusive column, The Inquisitive Academic.

Reprinted from Tribal College Journal.