Tribal colleges and universities

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Bowhead whale skull in front of Iḷisaġvik College's main building in Barrow, Alaska

In the United States, tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) are a category of higher education, minority-serving institutions defined in the Higher Education Act of 1965. Each qualifies for funding under the Tribally Controlled Colleges and Universities Assistance Act of 1978 (25 U.S.C. 1801 et seq.) or the Navajo Community College Act (25 U.S.C. 640a note); or is cited in section 532 of the Equity in Educational Land-Grant Status Act of 1994 (7 U.S.C. 301 note).

These educational institutions are distinguished by being controlled and operated by American Indian tribes; they have become part of American Indians' institution-building in order to pass on their own cultures. The first was founded by the Navajo Nation in 1968 in Arizona, and several others were established in the 1970s. As of 1994, they have been authorized by Congress as land-grant colleges.[1][2]

Presently, there are 32 fully accredited Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) in the United States, with one formal candidate for accreditation.[3][4]


The Tribal College movement grew out of the Native American "self-determination" movement of the 1960s.[5] Tribal colleges are located on or near Indian reservations and provide access to post-secondary education, accredited degrees, and vocational training for both Indian and non-Indian students. Navajo Community College, now called Diné College, the first tribal college, was founded on the reservation in Tsaile, Arizona, in 1968 and accredited in 1979.[6] Tensions immediately arose between two philosophies: one that the tribal colleges should have the same criteria, curriculum and procedures for educational quality as mainstream colleges, the other that the faculty and curriculum should be closely adapted to the particular historical culture of the tribe. There was a great deal of turnover, exacerbated by very tight budgets.[7] Several other tribal colleges were established in the 1970s and enrollment has steadily increased.[8]

Native culture and tradition have become a part of the curricula since the 1970s, when many of the colleges were established. These institutions are generally located on reservations and face problems similar to those of other rural educational institutions: recruitment and retention of students and faculty, and curriculum issues.[9][10] Lack of funding, along with the minimal resources of some tribes, have been obstacles.[11] For some Native American nations, revenues from casino gambling have aided in their building educational institutions.

In general, enrollment has increased significantly, particularly in areas where reservations have significant populations. In 1982, the total enrollment at tribal colleges in the United States was approximately 2,100. By 2003, it had increased to 30,000.[11] This also reflects a return to reservations by numerous American Indians, for instance, on the Great Plains.

By contrast, California's only tribal college, D-Q University located west of Davis, California, closed in 2005. It re-opened briefly with six students in 2006. Unlike most of the institutions, it is not affiliated with a single education tribe or reservation.[12] [13]

In 1994 under the Elementary and Secondary Education Reauthorization Act, the tribal colleges were authorized by the US Congress as land-grant colleges. Most offer two-year degrees, although six are four-year institutions, and three have master's degree programs. Several colleges, such as the College of the Menominee Nation, have developed transfer agreements with affiliated state universities to allow students who graduate from the two-year tribal college to receive junior status at the state university system.[11] Sinte Gleska University in South Dakota has a master's program affiliated with Red Crow Community College and Canadian universities in Alberta.

On December 2, 2011, President Barack Obama signed Executive Order 13592—Improving American Indian and Alaska Native Educational Opportunities and Strengthening Tribal Colleges and Universities, which ordered that federal agency work closely with tribal governments to help improve educational opportunities provided to all AI/AN students, including students attending postsecondary institutions such as Tribal Colleges and Universities. This executive order was signed to address the high drop out rate, to help close the achievement gap between AI/AN students and their non-native peers, while also preserving and revitalizing Native languages.[14] This executive order is run by The White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education.[3] This initiative is part of the Department of Education, and it supports activities that will expand educational opportunities and improve education outcomes for all AI/AN students.[3]

As of 2013, Montana is the only state in which each Indian reservation has established a fully accredited tribal college. The University of Montana "was the first to establish dual admission agreements with all of the tribal colleges and as such it was the first institution in the nation to actively facilitate student transfer from the tribal colleges."[15] The Montana legislature passed the Indian Education for All Act, creating the only state mandate for public schools to "teach American Indian history, culture, and heritage to preschool through higher education students."[15]


Faculty development[edit]

In 2017 Ahmed Al-Asfour and Suzanne Young conducted a survey study of the professional development needs of faculty at TCUs. The areas of greatest concern were workload and low salary.[16] Low teacher salaries may be attributed to the unique situation TCUs are in regarding funding. Most tribal colleges are located on reservations and therefore are not supported by local taxes. They only receive support federally and remain chronically underfunded.[5] Al-Asfour and Young argue that this underfunding and subsequent low faculty salaries may be a cause of low retention of faculty, and result in mostly inexperienced faculty accepting positions at TCUs.[16]

Additionally, Al-Asfour and Young found that Non-Native American faculty reported significantly greater challenges in learning Native American culture compared to Native American faculty and therefore argue that faculty development should focus on training the non-native staff in regards to Native American culture to better serve their population of students.[16] TCUs are unique institutions and therefore require special attention to understand the needs of their faculty and to allocate resources as needed.[16]

Role of mentorship[edit]

Research done by Carol Ward, Kacey Widdison Jones, Ryan Coles, Loren Rich, Stan Knapp and Robert Madsen at Chief Dull Knife College (CDKC) found that AI/AN students had a special need for direct culturally sensitive mentoring and social support.[17] The case study of CDKC explored outcome students attributed to their experiences working on a research project under a mentor and the effects this participation had on student attitudes.[17] They studied students who were involved in a variety of research collaborations with the University of Montana and Montana State University under mentorship from the research director.[17] From this one-on-one instruction and mentorship the students’ perceptions of themselves, their abilities and their futures increased significantly.[17] After the mentorship, they believed they could incorporate science into their educational and career future, and completed upper-level science research methods courses all despite previous struggles in math and science instruction.[17] Most importantly the students were able to recognize their academic strengths rather than viewing themselves negatively and changed how they envisioned their future.[17] Ward et al. found that “student involvement in instructor-led mentored research projects as well as independent and student-led research activities improved student performance and confidence in math and science, improved course retention and completion, and resulted in more students planning to pursue four-year degrees.”[17]

Role in preserving native languages[edit]

As the use of native languages decreases, Paskus[18] explored the role TCUs have in language preservation among college-age students and youth. Many TCUs have Native language courses and are also beginning to bring those programs to elementary students and younger.[18] Implementers of these programs have already begun to see small achievements such as more often hearing things like greetings in native languages on campus.[18] Some of these programs focus on a model that connects the children with elders and help the parents learn the language too.[18] TCUs may be lighting the spark in this movement.[18][19]

Study of TCU drug and alcohol problem and solutions[edit]

Duran, Magarati, Parker, Egashira, and Kipp[20] conducted a web-based survey of 340 students, faculty and staff to better understand how TCU members perceived drug and alcohol problems and their readiness to address these issues. They found that both students and staff perceive alcohol and drug problems as being a serious problem but also the TCUs have strong systems of social capital in place to address them.[20] These systems include staff who will intervene, traditional activities that bring people together, and overall respect for one another.[20] From this study TCU's have been able to receive grants to enhance academic achievement by addressing alcohol and drug needs on campuses and continuing to study them.[20] Duran et al. argue “these are the first steps to develop a culturally appropriate and sustainable alcohol and drug abuse treatment and prevention strategy for TCUs, which in turn enhances post-secondary academic success among Native students”.[20]


The American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC), founded in 1972, represents 37 tribal colleges in the US and one in Canada. The organization is jointly governed by presidents from the member institutions.[21] AIHEC provides TCUs technical assistance, assistance in planning new initiatives, and acts a platform for networking between the institutions, while also providing a comprehensive data collection system.[5] Beyond this the AIHEC mainly acts as an advocate for the Tribal College Movement and has had a role in most legal victories of the movement.[5]

Special programs[edit]

TCLI group photo, 2007

Based in Huntsville, Alabama, Tribal Earth Science & Technology Education (TRESTE) is a NASA-funded team of nine tribal higher education institutions and the Universities Space Research Association's Earth System Science Program. The collaboration is designed to enhance Earth system science and geospatial education using problem-based teaching techniques in order to inspire undergraduate students for careers in Earth system science, the physical sciences, and other fields of engineering or science.[22]

Alternate tribal higher education programs are available, including the Tribal College Librarians Institute (TCLI), a week-long professional development experience for U.S. and Canadian tribal college librarians.


The award-winning Tribal College Journal of American Indian Higher Education is a culture-based publication addressing issues in American Indian and Alaska higher education with articles by journalists and scholars. It provides a forum for tribal students, staff, faculty, and college administrators to discuss their needs, successes, and missions.[23]


The American Indian College Fund, originally located in New York City, but now based in Denver, Colorado, provides scholarships for US tribal colleges and universities. Foundation and private-sector donations are crucial to its success. Its mission is to transform Indian higher education through funding and awareness of the community-based, accredited tribal colleges and universities while offering student access to knowledge, skills, and cultural values in order to enhance both the communities they serve and the country as a whole.[24]

Other scholarship programs abound, including many that are unique to a specific program, geographic area or tribe. Examples are the Tribal Training Grant, Tribal Higher Education Scholarship program, and Alyeska Match Scholarship.[25] and Intertribal Higher Education Program.[26]

The Native American Journalists Association (NAJA), founded by journalist and publisher Tim Giago (Oglala Lakota), has a foundation offering scholarships and internships to American Indian students in journalism. It sponsors three seminars annually for working American Indian journalists and those in the business end.[27]

University College Cork, a university in Ireland offers scholarships to members of the Choctaw to undertake a masters degree at the university including tuition and living expenses[28][29] in recogition of the generous donation given by members of the Choctaw to the Irish people during the Great Famine.[30]

Legal codes[edit]

Specific Executive Orders govern Indian tribe higher education operations in the United States:

  • E.O. 13021 Tribal Colleges and Universities
  • E.O. 13096 American Indian and Alaska Native Education

Title 25 of the United States Code defines the role of Indians in the United States Code:

  • 25 U.S.C. ch. 20—Tribally Controlled College or University Assistance
  • E.O. 13592 Improving American Indian and Alaska Native Educational Opportunities and Strengthening Tribal Colleges and Universities

Tribal colleges and universities in other countries[edit]

In Aoteroa New Zealand, similar universities are termed wānanga. They serve the Māori community and in the case of Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi confer degrees up to a doctoral level.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ginger Stull, Demetrios Spyridakis, Marybeth Gasman, Andrés Castro Samayoa, & Yvette Booker, Redefining Success: How Tribal Colleges and Universities Build Nations, Strengthen Sovereignty, and Persevere through Challenges. Philadelphia, PA: Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions, 2015.
  2. ^ Warner, L. S. & Gipp, G. (2009). Tradition and culture in the millennium: Tribal colleges and universities. Information Age Publishers.
  3. ^ a b c "WHIAIANE".
  4. ^ Marybeth Gasman, Andrés Castro Samayoa, William Casey Boland, & Paola Esmieu (Eds.), Educational Challenges and Opportunities at Minority Serving Institutions (New York, NY: Routledge Press, 2018).
  5. ^ a b c d "AIHEC".
  6. ^ Ginger Stull, Demetrios Spyridakis, Marybeth Gasman, Andrés Castro Samayoa, & Yvette Booker, Redefining Success: How Tribal Colleges and Universities Build Nations, Strengthen Sovereignty, and Persevere through Challenges. Philadelphia, PA: Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions, 2015.
  7. ^ T. Gregory and Lourene Thaxton, "Robert A. Roessel Jr. and Navajo Community College: Cross-Cultural Roles of Key Individuals in Its Creation, 1951-1989," American Indian Culture & Research Journal (2007) 31#4 pp 25-50.
  8. ^ Marjane Ambler, "While globalizing their movement, tribal colleges import ideas" Archived 2006-10-04 at, Tribal College Journal of American Indian Higher Education, Vol. 16 No.4, Summer 2005, accessed 7 July 2011
  9. ^ Higher Education Forum (2004-07-22). "2nd Annual Washington State/Tribal Indian Education Summit". Retrieved 2008-10-27.
  10. ^ Shreve, B. & Littlebear, R. (2019) (Eds.). Language revitalization at Tribal colleges and universities: Overviews, perspectives, and profiles. Tribal College Press.
  11. ^ a b c Webster, Lori (July 2003). "Tribal Colleges and Universities: Guided by Tribal Values, Advancing Academic Study". Diversity Digest. 7 (1 & 2).
  12. ^ Hindery, Robin (2006-08-12). "California's only tribal college close to collapse after 35 years". Retrieved 2008-10-27.
  13. ^ William Casey Boland, Andrés Castro Samayoa, Thai-Huy Nguyen, Marybeth Gasman, Chris Jimenez, Elisa Chen, & Vera Wang, Striking Gold in the Golden State: Harnessing the Power of Minority Serving Institutions in California. Philadelphia, PA: Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions, 2015.
  14. ^ Obama, B. (2011, December 2). Executive Order 13592—Improving American Indian and Alaska native educational opportunities and strengthening tribal colleges and universities. Retrieved from
  15. ^ a b "Native American Center Facts". The University of Montana. Archived from the original on 2013-10-29. Retrieved 2013-10-27.
  16. ^ a b c d Al-Asfour, A., & Young, S. (2017). Faculty professional development needs and career advancement at tribal colleges and universities. Journal of Faculty Development, 31(1), 41-48.
  17. ^ a b c d e f g Ward, C. c., Jones, K. W., Coles, R., Rich, L., Knapp, S., & Madsen, R. (2014). Mentored research in a tribal college setting: The northern Cheyenne case. Journal of Research In Rural Education, 29(3), 1-17.
  18. ^ a b c d e Paskus, L. (2013). More than words, a way of life: Language restoration programs reach beyond tribal colleges and universities. Tribal College Journal of American Indian Higher Education, 24(4)
  19. ^ Shreve, B. & Littlebear, R. (2019) (Eds.). Language revitalization at Tribal colleges and universities: Overviews, perspectives, and profiles. Tribal College Press.
  20. ^ a b c d e Duran, B., Magarati, M., Parker, M., Egashira, L., & Kipp, B. J. (2013). Working Together: Wellness and Academic Achievement at Tribal Colleges and Universities. Tribal College Journal of American Indian Higher Education, 25(2),
  21. ^ "AIHEC's History and Mission". Archived from the original on 2008-10-28. Retrieved 2008-10-27.
  22. ^ "TRibal Earth Science & Technology Education (TRESTE) Program". Archived from the original on 2008-09-21. Retrieved 2008-10-27.
  23. ^ "A History of the Tribal College Journal". Archived from the original on 2002-12-08. Retrieved 2008-10-27.
  24. ^ "About Us". Retrieved 2008-10-27.
  25. ^ "Tribal Higher Education Scholarships for Alaskan Natives". Retrieved 2008-10-27.
  26. ^ "Tribal Higher Education Program" (PDF). / p. 1. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2008-10-29. Retrieved 2008-10-27.
  27. ^ Tim Giago, "Freedom of the Press in Indian Country", Nieman Reports: Covering Indian Country, Fall 2005, accessed 29 June 2011
  28. ^ "The Choctaw-Ireland Scholarship Programme". University College Cork. Retrieved 2020-06-14.
  29. ^ "Choctaw-Ireland Scholarship Programme". Chahta Foundation. Retrieved 2020-06-14.
  30. ^ Allen, Judy. "The Choctaw Nation's Gift to the Irish". Retrieved 2020-06-14.

Further reading[edit]

  • Black, Vicki. 'Tribal Colleges and Universities: Perceptions of Presidents and Students.' Diss. University of Georgia, 2013. online
  • Khachadoorian, Angelle A. Inside the Eagle's Head: An American Indian College (2010) memoir by a former professor at Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute in Albuquerque New Mexico excerpt
  • McKinley, Bryan et al. Postsecondary Education for American Indian and Alaska Natives: Higher Education for Nation Building and Self-Determination (2012) excerpt
  • Shotton, Heather J. et al. eds. Beyond the Asterisk: Understanding Native Students in Higher Education (2013) excerpt

External links[edit]