College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

A Crucial Investment in Indian Higher Ed.

By Barbara Morris — December 03, 2013 5 min read
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As an administrator at Fort Lewis College in Colorado, I witness daily the need for increased preparation for, access to, and success in higher education for our Native children.

Recent reports illustrate that Native students are unprepared for college upon high school graduation. According to the Washington-based Education Trust, only 76 percent of American Indian students have access to Advanced Placement courses in their high schools. Such courses prepare students academically and measure their aptitude for collegiate success. For Native students taking the ACT college-entrance exam, only one in four scored at a college-ready level in mathematics and only one in three scored at the level needed for reading and language arts, according to an August 2013 Education Trust report. Comparatively, more than 50 percent of non-Native high school graduates were prepared for college-level courses in math, and two-thirds in reading.

Given these scores, it is not surprising that Native students are not enrolling in college at levels comparable to those of their non-Native peers. The most recent data suggest that only 52 percent of Native students enroll in college immediately following high school graduation, while 74 percent of their non-Native peers enroll. And it is increasingly alarming that only 40 percent of those Native students who enrolled in college graduated with a bachelor’s degree in six years.

These statistics are unacceptable. For Native communities to thrive, we need an educated citizenry to move our people forward. This begins with creating policy and utilizing best practices that help more of our students enter and graduate from college. To fulfill this objective, American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian students not only need increased access to higher education, but also access to support systems that ensure greater completion rates once they reach the collegiate level.

Political arguments must end so that the United States can invest in its most vulnerable student populations."

Beginning as early as pre-K, schools should be providing Native students a curriculum that respects their cultural and linguistic traditions. For our children, attending schools that exclude cultural traditions means they are given fewer opportunities for building pride, self-motivation, and increased academic achievement.

Research has shown that as a school incorporates the local culture, their Native students’ academic scores rise, which, in turn, increases their students’ ability to succeed in higher education.

Working in an institution with an average of 900 Native students from more than 140 federally recognized tribes and a diversity of students who are traditional and nontraditional, single (with no children), single parents, or couples with children, the leaders of Fort Lewis College understand this issue completely.

Through working with students directly, I know that institutions of higher education must strive to strengthen the Native culture of students once they enter college. At Fort Lewis College, programs and classes offer students the ability to learn or strengthen their collective Native culture through the Native American Center, the Native American Honor Society, American Indian Business Leaders, as well as other programs, such as our elder-in-residence program, where Mrs. Lucille Echohawk (Pawnee) encourages students to stay strong in their Native traditions as they progress through college and career. We believe it is this emphasis on academic and cultural support that makes Fort Lewis College one of the top public institutions in the country for Native students to excel and graduate.

Similar to elementary and secondary education, it is critical that higher education institutions partner and collaborate with local tribes and Native education stakeholders to support cultural and linguistic initiatives before Native students enroll, as well as after their arrival at college.

Tribes understand their children best and can help higher education address the cultural needs of students to ensure that a collegiate education is not only respectful to Native students, but also engages them. By strengthening these partnerships, the disparity in college graduation between Native and non-Native students will diminish.

Unfortunately, higher education is often hindered by external factors that reduce the ability of the institution to support such initiatives.

Institutional partnerships and programs need expanded resources, such as Indian education professional development and other grant opportunities, to instruct Native educators to teach in higher education and schools that serve reservations and Native communities.

About This Special Section

“Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” Those words in a speech by Robert Henry Pratt in 1892 are a stark reminder of how the United States government once viewed American Indians. In 1879, Pratt opened the first off-reservation government boarding school where Native American children where sent, often forcibly, to be “civilized.”

Low rates of high school graduation, among other grim educational outcomes, weigh on Indian Country today. In spite of their deep concerns, many Native leaders see a direction for how to improve student achievement and academic prosperity, including through the preservation of tribal cultures and languages.

Education Week Commentary editors partnered with the National Indian Education Association to invite Native leaders to discuss such issues. Artist Brent Greenwood (Chickasaw/Ponca) contributed original illustrations.

Read the other Commentaries and browse a related reporting project on Native American education: Education in Indian Country: Obstacles and Opportunities

Further, federal education programs such as TRIO are invaluable resources for low-income Native students on college campuses. They provide critical academic and student-support services in higher education to help disadvantaged students stay in school and graduate at higher rates.

With budget reductions in recent years funding for TRIO initiatives such as Student Support Services, Upward Bound, and Talent Search have been greatly reduced. These services are critical for Native students who need remedial education services to succeed and close the collegiate-preparation gap for Native students.

Similarly, financial-aid programs make valuable investments in Native students’ futures and provide assistance for them to succeed in higher education and enter the workforce.

Such need-based aid should be adequately funded and expanded to provide year-round assistance to help ensure that Native students graduate in four years. Unfortunately, as the federal government tackles fiscal issues in Washington, budget reductions are decreasing investment in the education initiatives that could otherwise bridge the gap for Native students.

Political arguments must end so that the United States can invest in its most vulnerable student populations. It is unacceptable for the federal government to ignore its trust responsibility—a moral obligation to Indian tribes—to educate Native students and to instead defund higher education programs that could improve the lives of young people and their communities.

As education stakeholders increasingly work together to ensure that culture and language are included and our students’ needs are addressed, there must be support from all levels—tribal, local, state, and federal.

As a higher education leader who works with Native students on a daily basis, I know the best practices for increasing student collegiate achievement. Therefore, I implore the federal government, states, schools, universities, and Native communities to work together to reverse discouraging trends and employ methods that instill in our Native students the pride that will make them the leaders of tomorrow.

A version of this article appeared in the December 04, 2013 edition of Education Week as The Higher Education Imperative: A Crucial Investment


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