Tribal colleges, devastated by the pandemic, deserve more support, advocates say

Much of the conversation and media attention around college in the time of COVID-19 has focused on predominantly white institutions. But a recent opinion piece from Sara Goldrick-Rab and Cheryl Crazy Bull for The Hechinger Report implores legislators and higher education leaders to pay attention to the plight of tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) in this moment—and to increase support accordingly. 

Underfunded institutions serving vulnerable communities 

The nation’s 37 tribal colleges and universities, which enroll nearly 100,000 students, are “lifelines to rural and disenfranchised Native American communities,” writes Goldrick-Rab, founding director of the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, and Crazy Bull, president and CEO of the American Indian College Fund. TCUs, they say, play a critical role in boosting degree attainment among, offering internet connectivity to, and creating opportunity for Native American students.      

Yet, TCUs have been neglected and underfunded for years. They often do not receive state and local funds, and in turn, are unable to provide their students with the same resources as predominantly white institutions. Just 20 percent of TCU students earn a four-year degree within six years.

Even before the pandemic, 85 percent of students attending TCUs were eligible for Pell grants. Results from a fall 2019 #RealCollege survey conducted at seven TCUs by the Hope Center and the American Indian College Fund highlight TCU students’ precarious circumstances, indicating that 80 percent had experienced food insecurity, housing insecurity, or homelessness during the previous year.  

TCU support crucial to ‘an inclusive national recovery’

Those rates likely are even higher now, given how the coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately strained many American Indian and Alaskan Native communities. Any “inclusive national recovery” from the pandemic must deliver additional resources to TCUs and their students, the authors write, noting that the $23 million provided to TCUs in the CARES Act was not enough. They urge legislators to create a Student Emergency Aid Fund specifically for TCUs—and support it with at least $40 million annually. The American Indian Higher Education Consortium also is calling on Congress for an infusion of TCU funding, given the institutions’ urgent needs

“This country was built at the expense of Indigenous Americans, and the debt we owe and will probably never pay back will haunt us for generations,” Goldrick-Rab and Crazy Bull write. “We cannot sweep the lives of TCU students aside. Their struggles are our struggles. Their recovery and survival, their health, education, and well-being, is the latest test of our commitment to equity and justice.”

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