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Tribal college students feel nurtured and empowered, but also need more support, report finds

Students who attend tribally controlled colleges praise the quality of their education and the support they receive from faculty and staff, according to a new report released by the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin.

At the same time, the report, “Preserving Culture and Planning for the Future: An Exploration of Student Experiences at Tribal Colleges,” highlighted the challenge of serving students in impoverished communities, where Internet access is limited and 33 percent of students worried about having enough food in the past twelve months.

Based on surveys of over 2,400 students enrolled at 22 of the nation’s tribally controlled colleges, the report found high levels of student satisfaction. Most agreed that their college provides a positive learning environment, engaged faculty, and a climate that reflects and promotes positive cultural values.

The report noted that 73 percent of entering tribal college students agreed that their college’s focus on language and culture “improves their self-image/confidence.” A similar percentage reported that their instructors knew their names, and 88 percent agreed that they feel a sense of belonging.

These levels of satisfaction and engagement exceed that of Native American students enrolled in non-tribal colleges and universities–sometimes by wide margins.

However, the report also noted that tribal colleges enroll students who are less academically prepared and require significantly more support. Sixty-seven percent of students are placed in developmental math courses, and nearly as many are enrolled in developmental reading and writing classes.

Poverty and geographic isolation also make the path to graduation more difficult. Nearly half of respondents have limited access to a computer or other electronic device at home and an equal number indicated that a “lack of reliable transportation could be a cause for withdrawal from class or the college.”

Widespread food insecurity was another worrisome finding. A quarter of students reported that they “ran out of food within the past 12 months and didn’t have money to get more.”

Tribal colleges respond by providing a wide range of support services, such as tutoring, counseling, child care, and transportation. But the colleges, which operate with less money per student than most mainstream institutions, need more support to fulfill their mandates, according Cheryl Crazy Bull, president of the American Indian College Fund.

Writing in the report’s forward, she argued that “in order to increase the number of Native students who complete college, more students need support. With continued investments from tribal colleges and additional investments from outside the colleges, this gap can be narrowed and more students can succeed.”