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On February 6, the American Indian College Fund released a report identifying eight powerful declarations that colleges and universities should do to better support Native students and make them visible at their institutions. This work was in response to a college tour incident at Colorado State University, after which made many Native students and families questioned who belongs in college settings. This work was also done in response to the continuing discouraging statistics concerning the inequities in higher education for Native peoples.

Today, 14 percent of American Indian and Alaska Natives age 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree compared to 30 percent of the overall U.S. population. It is estimated that for every 100 elementary Native students, 85 will graduate from high school, 11 will receive an associate degree, and 16 will receive a bachelor’s degree. We know that Native people are intelligent and more than capable of obtaining a college degree. Yet, there are systemic and structural barriers to Native student success. And it is largely the responsibility of colleges and universities to dismantle these hurdles.

How could a group face the highest rates of inequity in higher education and not get the support and visibility that they deserve? And what can be done to raise awareness of this glaring issue?

Native students and families attending a college day at The University of Arizona.

Native students and families attending a college day at The University of Arizona.

With the cooperation of the leadership at Colorado State University, the American Indian College Fund (the College Fund) hosted the Indigenous Higher Education Equity Initiative (IHEEI) on August 29-30, 2018. Leadership from the College Fund; tribal colleges and universities; public and private colleges and universities; non-profit organizations, foundations, institutes, and associations; along with Native college students met to create a plan to increase visibility and promote college access and completion for Native students.

The declarations cover the right of Native students to attend any college or university of their choice; the duty of colleges and universities to recognize the Native homelands on which their institutions were built; and their duty to make visible, advocate for, and empower Native students’ degree attainment, addressed in turn as follows.

Currently, most Native students are attending community colleges and public institutions. Native students are less likely to attend very selective colleges or pursue a bachelor’s degree. College affordability is a huge concern for Native students. A recent report revealed that Native students pursuing a graduate degree are overwhelmingly attending for-profit institutions, with master’s degree recipients accruing an average debt of $48,820 and doctoral degree recipients (87 percent) accruing an average debt of $120,100. These figures speak to how colleges are gatekeeping enrollment and how students who make it into college are leaving with high debt. Promising efforts are underway at tribal colleges and universities, which strive to make college affordable by keeping tuition low with an average tuition at $2,947.

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The Morrill Act of 1862 gave land to states for the establishment of colleges, and there are even more federal and state policies that reallocated land for the purpose of education — benefiting higher education institutions.

There has been an increase in Indigenous land acknowledgement by colleges and universities. Arizona State University President Michael Crow sent a statement to the university's community affirming that it resides on the lands of the Akimel O’odham and Pee Posh peoples. Seattle Central College prepared a statement to be read at each major campus event. Land acknowledgement also includes stewarding relationships with Native peoples and Tribal nations. We applaud those colleges and universities who are already doing this meaningful work.

Over the years, Native student enrollment and graduation degree obtainment has stagnated, with little progress. Connected to this challenge is the reality that many institutions are unaware and ill-informed about the experiences and needs that Native students face.

Lack of awareness is not just a higher education problem, it’s a systemic concern. “Invisibility is the modern form of racism against Native Americans” was the headline of an article that highlighted the pervasive invisibility of Native peoples in media, K-12 education, and pop culture. Another recent report published February 15, 2019 found a lack of precise, national data on many educational outcomes for American Indians or Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians or other Pacific Islanders. The College Fund calls on institutions of higher education to improve their institutional data by accounting for Indigenous students and the Native nations they represent.

Many may doubt that higher education institutions will respond to the needs of Native students, considering our historical and contemporary reality with educational institutions. But we must not seize our work toward bettering our future as our ancestors did for us. We must do our best to make inroads, but also declare that institutions in return inroads. As Dr. Henrietta Mann (Cheyenne) shared, “We are not just border walkers. We are border crossers. And if we border crossers, then institutions of higher education, must, too be border crossers. No longer can we allow our roads only to lead to those institutions of higher education; those institutions of higher education must also make roads, inroads, into our respective communities, into our homelands. Learn of these phenomenal bodies of traditional knowledge that you all carry, that our ancestors handed down to us.”

We call on you to advocate for Native students in college. Please download and share the report with your local colleges and universities and let’s work together to increase educational equity for the betterment of our people.

Amanda R. Tachine, Diné, is a research and evaluation associate at the American Indian College Fund. She is also an Affiliate at Arizona State University's Center for Indian Education and an Affiliate for the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice. You can follow her on Twitter at @atachine.