How the deck is stacked against tribal students (opinion)

College is not easy for anyone, but the challenges faced by many tribal students are tougher than most.

After 15 years of working on higher education with Native Americans, American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians, I remain awed by the grit of the student on the reservation who relied on a gas generator to power her laptop for satellite internet access for her college assignments.

Then there was the devoted teacher who traveled many miles door-to-door on the reservation during the pandemic to personally hand out lessons on paper because her students had no internet access.

I also remember the young college student who returned to the reservation for the traditional two weeks of mourning for a tribal leader, then returned to his campus afterward, only to learn that he had been dropped from his class because of nonattendance.

So many things that most college students take for granted—electricity, internet access, family and friends with generations of higher ed experience—are missing for many tribal students. Higher education officials have known about these problems for years, but most colleges simply offer tribal students a discount and call that “collaboration” or “a partnership.”

Rarely do higher education leaders ever ask what the tribal communities want and need.

At the University of Phoenix, we spent two years traveling the country seeking tribal leaders’ advice and input on higher education. We learned so much that we overhauled our tribal relations teams to meet the specific needs of tribal members, community residents, leaders and enterprises.

We found that many tribal leaders are focused like a laser on students’ return on investment from college—how much will a tribal member earn with a degree. We also learned that many businesses on and around reservations want help finding qualified applicants, especially with teaching and health-care jobs.

In response, we dissolved a tribal relations team, which had been affiliated with the enrollment department, and instead shifted to a tribal operations team that worked under workforce solutions. Some team members were assigned to work directly as counselors with tribal students; others made sure academic requirements of tribal financial aid and scholarship programs were being met.

The result: University of Phoenix tribal students are now progressing through their fourth course at rates eight to 10 percentage points higher than the student body at large, and they continue to outperform our nontribal students at the end of their first year. Many graduate with little or no student loan debt due to our Tribal Strategic Alliance Agreement with the National Indian Education Association, which gives members of Native American, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian communities an opportunity to enroll in many online or in-person certificate or degree programs at the University of Phoenix for $5,250 per year, or about half the original cost.

Graduating with no debt means tribal students can afford to bring their new skills back to the reservation, where they set examples of success for the next generation of tribal students.

Every tribal graduate is a milestone. Today just 24 percent of Native Americans aged 18 to 24 are enrolled in college, compared to 41 percent of the total US population. The college graduation rate for Native Americans is about a third lower than that for the overall population. These struggles and education barriers are a big reason why Native Americans have the highest poverty rate among racial groups in the United States.

After growing up amid a tribal community in Alaska, and then spending years working with tribal communities across the United States, I’ve learned one big lesson: we must listen to what tribal leaders, education counselors and tribal enterprise management are telling us.

For starters, they need internet access for online schooling. Tribal communities are the least connected in America, with about a third of all tribal residents lacking broadband. (On the Nez Perce reservation in Idaho, more than 80 percent of residents have no broadband.) Across America, nearly one in five reservation residents does not have any internet at home, whether wireless or land-based.

There’s also a big cultural divide. So many tribal students were born and raised on the reservation or in their tribal community, where advice is readily available from aunts, uncles, grandparents and elders. However, when students move to a traditional four-year campus in a faraway city, they find a foreign culture with little support network—like sending a US exchange student to France who doesn’t speak French and has seen Europe only in movies.

Studies show that many Native Americans experience high levels of anxiety during their first six to eight weeks of college, and that these first weeks are critical in determining whether they drop out. And as those students return home, a harmful belief is cemented—the notion that college isn’t for them.

Instead of colleges adapting to these students, colleges wrongly assume the students would adapt to us. What works better is customized support and close contact. We continuously work to identify specific struggles, both academic and nonacademic, of tribal students.

For example, many tribal students are older, with families, who delayed college until their kids were grown. They juggle jobs and home life all while entering institutions built for someone else. For them, flexible scheduling and support from specialists who understand the education barriers help greatly.

We also found many students who were long on enthusiasm but short on some academic skills. Many reservation high schools struggle for funding. Targeted support and academic refreshers can give tribal students the confidence—and college focus—that they need to thrive.

So much of life on the reservation centers on personal experience. Each successful college student means so much to the graduate, the family, the community—and, in a powerful way, to the tribal culture.

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