Washington, D.C., May 22, 2001—Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) play a vital role in helping American Indian communities devise innovative and culturally appropriate solutions that shape the community’s social and economic vision for the future, according to a recent study jointly released by two non-profit higher education organizations. The new study highlights the need for additional funding for the nation’s Tribal Colleges in order to increase their potential as contributors to local community development.
The 33 Tribal Colleges are unique institutions that combine cultural relevance and personal attention to increase educational opportunity for American Indian students. The study—Building Strong Communities: Tribal Colleges as Engaged Institutions—outlines the expanding role of TCUs in serving tribal communities. It explores five areas of Tribal College community engagement: involvement in pre-school and K-12 education; participation in health and nutrition activities; the special role of faculty; agriculture and natural resources management; and cultural development and preservation.
Tribal communities, especially those located on geographically isolated reservations, face numerous challenges. Only 66 percent of American Indian adults graduated from high school, and American Indians suffer from disproportionately high rates of disease and other conditions—the death rate from diabetes is 3.5 times higher for American Indians than for the general U.S. population. At the same time, American Indian teachers and health professionals are scarce, accounting for less than 1 percent of all public school teachers, physicians, and registered nurses. TCUs help communities both by providing direct services in these areas and by graduating professionals who remain in local communities, despite being severely underfunded in comparison to mainstream community colleges. “Insufficient operational funding continues to threaten the colleges’ viability and remains the most pressing priority facing the tribal college movement,” explained Dr. Gerald Gipp, Executive Director of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.
The report shows that Tribal Colleges are a good investment of federal and private dollars because the benefits are passed along to local communities. For example, TCUs provide early intervention programs such as Head Start and TRIO that encourage American Indian children to enter and progress through the postsecondary education pipeline, in addition to health and wellness programs that target diabetes, substance abuse, and other conditions that disproportionately affect American Indian adults. TCUs also play an important role in educating professionals in critical fields; in 1996-97, TCUs awarded 152 degrees and certificates in education, over 200 in health-related fields, and 74 in agriculture and natural resource management.
The study points out that the relationship between Tribal Colleges and local communities can be characterized as “engaged involvement,” that is, tribal culture and traditions remain at the heart of Tribal Colleges’ missions and are interwoven throughout instructional activities and community services. In addition, Tribal College faculty members serve as significant, positive role models to community members, despite comparatively low salaries ($30,241 compared to $52,335 for full-time faculty at all colleges and universities). Other areas of comprehensive community engagement include:
- Day care and transportation services,
- Housing/infrastructure issues,
- Preparing/strengthening tribal leaders,
- GED/adult education, and
- Public libraries and community meeting places.
“These findings underscore the important role of Tribal Colleges in serving not only their immediate constituencies—students—but the larger tribal communities in which they are located,” said Ron McNeil, Executive Committee Member of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, and President of Sitting Bull College. McNeil noted, “The impact of Tribal Colleges in their respective communities encompasses a broad range of areas of involvement never before highlighted until this report.”
The study proposes several recommendations to facilitate the beneficial impact of Tribal Colleges:
- Increase federal funding for core operations and land-grant programs;
- Increase support and resources for faculty development, teacher training programs, technology upgrades, and other critical areas;
- Provide more opportunities for Tribal College involvement in early intervention programs (i.e., Head Start, TRIO);
- Support partnerships between Tribal Colleges and local schools, private sector initiatives, and other colleges and universities; and
- Promote Tribal College efforts to conduct research in critical fields such as natural resource management and health/nutrition issues.
The report was prepared by the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC), which represents the nation’s TCUs, and The Institute for Higher Education Policy, a non-profit, non-partisan research group. The study is the fourth in a series under the Tribal College Research and Database Initiative, sponsored by AIHEC.