Colleges work to increase Native American students’ access and completion

Colleges in the United States have long struggled to recruit and retain Native American students. Native American students have lower college enrollment and graduation rates than any other demographic group in the nation. In 2017, less than one-fifth of Native American and Alaska Native students ages 18-24 were enrolled in college, and such students made up less than one percent of total enrollment. Of those who do enroll, only 39 percent graduate within six years.

But some schools, like the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, are taking steps to improve Native American student enrollment and outcomes, writes The Hechinger Report. The university  increased its enrollment of undergraduates who identify as native from 339 students in 2009 to 418 in 2019 and saw those students’ six-year graduation rate rise from 27 percent to 69 between 2008 and 2018.

Cultural sensitivities

To increase college access and success for Native American students, universities must recognize and respond to those students’ unique cultural values and stressors, advocates say. Native American students are more likely to have graduated from underperforming high schools. Many are first-generation students with greater financial need. Some are disenchanted with institutional approaches that exclude, ignore, and erase Native American history. And often, students confront bias, stereotypes, and emotionally exhausting ignorance on campus.

Carmen Lopez, executive director of College Horizons, a nonprofit dedicated to improving college success for Native American students, calls such challenges the “ghosts of colonialism” and urges universities to increase their cultural sensitivity.

Joan Gabel, president of the University of Minnesota system, says that, given their limited representation on campuses, Native Americans are often omitted from higher education’s inclusion efforts. “If we had a more national perspective on this, the way we do around other types of inclusion, then we would all get better,” she said.

Barriers to achievement

Cultural tensions also can affect students’ performance in the classroom. Colleges often have few Native American administrators, teachers, and counselors on campus, and non-Native educators may be unaware of the spiritual and cultural obligations that draw students away from campus. Angela Richards, an alumna of University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, felt torn between being a student and being a community member of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. “In my culture, you don’t leave your family,” she said. “You always stay somewhere close by.” Away at school, she missed many ceremonies and funerals.

History also affects Native American students’ relationship to financial aid. Megan Red Shirt-Shaw, a student at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, said that students may be wary of entering in loan agreements with the federal government, given the United States’ record of breaking contracts with Native American tribes.

Resources at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities

The Hechinger Report highlights the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities as an institution especially attuned to attracting and supporting Native American students. At 51 years old, its Department of American Indian Studies is the oldest in the country. It offers a living learning community dorm for indigenous students and recently opened a center for indigenous students called Circle of Indigenous Nations. The American Indian Student Cultural Center offers community events such as weekly Frybread Fridays, while clubs like Canoe Rising, which offers canoe excursions on the Mississippi River,provide “a place where these young people don’t have to explain themselves, students and university staff say.”

The university also created a summer institute for indigenous high schoolers and organized a college fair at the St. Paul campus designed specifically for Native American students.

Looking ahead, students and staff say the university should invest in more faculty and staff who are indigenous. Nationally, less than 1 percent of faculty identify as American Indian or Alaska Native. Stakeholders have also called on the state to invest in additional tuition assistance. The University of Minnesota-Morris, for example, waives tuition for indigenous students “because of its history as a boarding school for Indian youth who were taken from their families in the early 1900s in the name of assimilation.”

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