Tribal Colleges: The Model for Cultural- and Community-Based Education Reform

Article excerpt

Secretary of Education Margaret Spelling's Commission's report, "A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education" denotes much-needed reforms in higher education. The report, which emphasizes that all Americans need access to higher education to thrive in today's global economy, highlights the needs of the Black, Hispanic and low-income communities, but it fails to address those of American Indians.

American Indians are often ignored in studies and by the media, and when discussed, it is often in a historical context. But American Indians are still here, and cultural- and community-based education reforms as seen in the tribal college movement can serve as prototypes for success for other educators. Indian country is a powerful example of how community-based education reform exposes low-income students to higher education, encourages matriculation and transforms the economics of entire communities.

American Indians have the lowest incomes of all ethnic and racial groups in the United States, according to U.S. Census data. More than 25 percent of all American Indians and Alaska Natives live below the poverty line, in contrast with a national poverty rate of 12.4 percent. The gap is even larger for one-third of all American Indians who live on reservations, with 51 percent of the population living below the poverty line. Low incomes and the historic use of education as a tool for forced assimilation have left many distrustful of higher education.

When the Navajo nation created Dine College in 1968 on the reservation to provide higher education to tribal members, it reformed education based on cultural and community needs, giving birth to the tribal college movement. There are now 31 tribal colleges, most of them two-year institutions, in 12 states, providing affordable, culturally based education for students living in remote areas. Several studies have shown that when American Indian students study their native language and traditions along with typical coursework, their test scores improve dramatically. In addition, with Indian faculty serving as teachers and role models, Indian students are less alienated in the classroom, leading to future success when students transfer to four-year institutions. According to a report by the Institute for Higher Education Policy and the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC), approximately half of tribal college graduates continued their education, with 86 percent pursuing a bachelor's degree.

Tribal colleges are accredited institutions offering 400 majors and 180 vocational certificate programs. Nine offer bachelor's degrees and two offer master's degrees, while nearly all offer four-year degree programs with other institutions through distance learning. They provide quality education in a variety of subjects, including technology, health care and the liberal arts, while also serving as community centers and centers of entrepreneurship. …