Native American Higher Education Essay

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Native American college students make up only about 1 percent of the nation’s college students. Such statistical analysis is often problematic because an individual college or university may have only a small number of Native students. As a result, Native students are often excluded in statistical reporting. Yet, statistically, between 1976 and 2002, the number of Native Americans attending college almost doubled. The potential number of Native students is also increasing as, according to the 2000 Census, 33 percent of the Native population is under the age of eighteen. The reported graduation rate of Native American college students is 36.5 percent, compared to 58 percent of White students. These percentages are based on federal reported cohort data, which counts a student in a cohort as a full-time student who enters as a freshman in the fall semester and graduates within six years of enrollment.

American Indian college students come from the most diverse ethnic group within the borders of the United States (there are over 500 federally recognized tribes). American Indian college students do not attend a single institution or attend college in the same manner. This entry will begin with an introduction of the historical colleges’ attempts to educate the indigenous population and the residential school period, which continues to have an impact today. A discussion of tribal colleges and Native American Studies programs is followed by a look at the challenges American Indian students face in blending their culture with that on a typical campus, and the elements these students say are important to their success.

Colonial Colleges

Almost from the moment of contact, the colonists considered educating the indigenous population in the European style as a matter of great importance, almost a duty. Early efforts were intended to “civilize” and “Christianize,” an effort to make indigenous people “European.” The Spanish established schools and colleges, and the Jamestown settlement had plans for Henrico, a college in the classical style, for natives in that area. Starting in 1649, three societies were established in Great Britain to support education and missionary work in the colonies. Including Indian youth in its college charter enabled an institution to gain access to those funds.

Harvard was founded in 1636. Its charter, however, was changed in 1649 to include “Indian youth,” to take advantage of funds from England. William and Mary’s charter was drafted in 1691. Their final charter was altered to include “Western Indians” in 1693. Dartmouth was established in 1769 for “Indian youth.” Few American Indians graduated during this Colonial Period. The education they received was not practical for the people of the time, and illness took a toll on a number of students. American Indian graduates could not find work among the White population.

Residential Schools

The failure of the early colleges to educate the indigenous population led to the false conclusion that American Indian people were not educable. Educational policy then took a decidedly vocational purpose after the Revolutionary War. Many treaties included provisions for education. Because American Indians were on lands wanted by White settlers, American Indians were viewed as a “problem,” and a federal policy of residential schools, often located off native territory, was developed. The purpose of these schools, which were first developed after the Civil War, was to assimilate the population by removing them from family and community and by forbidding use of native languages and traditions. Few of these schools offered an education past the sixth or eighth grade level. Residential school survivors have reported that they were physically punished for speaking their language, and many have reported physical and sexual abuse.

Residential schools began to be phased out in 1920. American Indian students then attended public schools, but always under a deficit ideology. Native cultures, families, and languages were considered inferior and blamed for student failure.

Tribal Colleges

Tribal colleges have played an important role in bringing a college education to American Indian communities. Many native nations experienced high unemployment rates and a loss of culture and language due to the boarding school era. Tribal colleges were developed to address that issue and the difficulties that young American Indians face in going to distant universities with very different cultures. The first was created by the Navajo Nation (now Diné College) in 1968 as part of the self-determination movement. Other colleges soon followed, mostly in the Midwest and West. There now exist twenty-eight tribal colleges (mostly two-year institutions) and universities. The American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) was formed in 1972 as the governing body of the tribal colleges.

According to AIHEC, common characteristics of tribal colleges are that they formed less than twenty-five years ago; have a small student population, typically located on remote territories; are chartered by one or more nations; and have an open admission policy. Most are commuter institutions, and even if they are universities now, such as Haskell Indian Nations University, they were, at one time, two-year colleges.

Tribal colleges offer a modern education within a Native framework, incorporating the chartering nation’s language and culture into the curriculum as well as in the architecture, art, student activities, and approach to learning. Since tribal colleges are closely linked to Native communities, they can offer assistance and experiences specific to a community’s needs and resources. An example provided by AIHEC is the offering of a course on a specific nation’s economic history and partnering with a neighboring four-year institution for teacher preparation. Tribal colleges play an important role in offering a postsecondary education and also in providing a space for dynamic academic scholarship in Native Studies and preserving and developing Native culture.

Native Studies Programs

Native American Studies (NAS) programs provide community for American Indian students and serve as centers of indigenous scholarship within predominantly White institutions. NAS programs tend to be interdisciplinary, as American Indian issues are interdisciplinary by nature. In addition to academic endeavors including courses, research, and faculty, NAS programs provide community service to native communities. These programs are typically engaged with nation communities and consider community involvement as part of their mission.

NAS programs also provide student support. For example, Cornell University’s American Indian Program has a house, Akwe:kon (which means “all of us” in the Mohawk language), where Native students can live along with nonnative students. The architecture of the building reflects Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) heritage, as Cornell sits in Cayuga territory. Programming occurs in Akwe:kon as well as in the American Indian Program located in an academic building on the main campus. The program uses a “full circle” approach to student success: recruitment, retention, and reintroduction to the student’s community. The program employs four full-time staff members, including a director and a student development specialist. Students are encouraged to use the program’s services as well as student services across the campus. Students are also guided so that they can bring their education back to their communities. Researchers have found that Native students want to give back to their communities. Cornell’s American Indian Program capitalizes on that desire.

Native Culture And The College Student

In the Native American tradition, children generally learn by observation. Children are included in community and family activities and learn by witnessing and imitating behavior. Therefore, even today, a Native American college student may feel more comfortable in a class where listening or observing is expected than a class with a trial-and-error focus. In American Indian culture, learning is not separated from the rest of the day’s events, nor is it sorted into distinct disciplines, making the compartmentalized nature of the academy uncomfortable for some students.

Native American students’ cultural norms and core values affect their college performance. One such core value is respect for elders. It therefore can be very difficult for a native college student to question a college professor who is seen as the authority or elder in the classroom. Students will offer personal information when ready and may share only what they wish a professor or college student personnel to know. Overt questioning by the professor may be interpreted as being intrusive. Native speech patterns tend to be slower.

There is an expectation the other party is listening and will be provided the time necessary to reflect on what is said. Showing off is frowned upon. An individual does not brag; others are expected to compliment and acknowledge an individual’s achievements. Women often play key roles in the community. Success is often defined within the context of the community, not an individual’s personal gain.

Given all this, there is also great diversity within the American Indian/Alaska Native population. There are over 500 indigenous nations, and not all Native people have grown up on a reservation, although, one researcher has found that two thirds will either live or remain closely connected to a reservation. Even some students who have grown up on the reservation may not practice their traditions, may not speak a native language, or may practice Christianity. Other students may speak their language in the home, practice traditional ceremonies, and never have set foot in a city. Thus, student personnel professionals and college professors will need to increase their personal knowledge about the history of the surrounding Native community if they hope to respond appropriately to Native students.

Native College Students

Native college students are still, by and large, first generation. Almost two thirds attend a community or tribal college. Research also indicates that many are parents. Ceremonial practices, community participation, and employment outside of college mean there are complex demands on these students. Some researchers have found that students may miss class to attend ceremonies, fully realizing the impact this may have on their grades. Ceremonies are not practiced on college campuses. Students may go home if their families need their help. The fact that students return home for these reasons is an indication of how highly valued ceremonies and families are to native students.

Overt assimilation attempts are no longer practiced; however, most colleges and universities are predominantly White, and are Eurocentric in design and curriculum. Researchers have found that students often resist assimilation by not engaging in campus activities. Professors are rarely diverse, and native faculty at most institutions are few and far between. In the western United States, a college or university can be distant from the tribal territory.

Successful American Indian students have reported that having a safe haven on campus where students can congregate is important to student success. Students also have reported that the American Indian faculty and staff were important for mentorship and for having someone on the campus who understood them. But students also noted the importance of honest and sincere non– American Indian faculty and staff who understand the indigenous worldview, relate to them as people, and appreciate the importance of indigenous spirituality.


  1. Carney, M. C. (1999). Native American higher education in the United States. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.
  2. Champagne, D., & Stauss, J. (2002). Native American Studies in higher education: Models for collaboration between universities and indigenous nations. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira.
  3. Fox, M. J., Lowe, S. C., & McClellan, G. S. (2005). Serving Native American services: New directions for student services. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  4. Tierney, W. G. (1992). Official encouragement, institutional discouragement: Minorities in academe—the Native American experience. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

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