Tribal College 'Beats the Odds' to Find Academic Success

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One of the most important and anticipated occasions on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota is graduation day, says Thomas Shortbull, president of Oglala Lakota College, or OLC, the nation's second-largest and second-oldest tribal college. OLC was founded in 1971.

Getting Native American students on the reservation to and through college, however, remains a great challenge, especially when most enter OLC financially strapped and reading at a 10th-grade level. Before embarking on college-level work, Shortbull says, 60 percent of OLC freshmen must enroll in remedial reading and writing courses and 60 to 70 percent in remedial math. But in August, the successes and innovative strategies that have come with offering 40 years of higher education to Lakota people landed OLC on a national list of 32 postsecondary institutions that show promise in increasing completion for underrepresented students.

OLC is the only tribal college featured in the report, "Beating the Odds: What It Means and Why It's Important." The report, released in September, was developed by HCM Strategists, a Washington, D.C.-based public policy advocacy group, with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The college serves about 1,800 students per semester at 11 sites spread across the vast reservation, in Rapid City and Eagle Butte, S.D. The 40-year-old college, which offers bachelor's and master's degrees, has graduated more than 3,000 students. In 2011, the college awarded 204 diplomas and certificates, 155 in 2010 and 133 in 2009.

In this conversation, Shortbull explains what it means to help Native students "beat the odds" to succeed in college.

DI: What has it meant to be the only tribal college featured in the "Beating the Odds" report?

Shortbull: It is a big honor that recognizes the hard work that we put into taking students who come in with pretty marginal skills--they don't have the 22 or 28 ACT scores--and move them through to a college degree. This is a major accomplishment.

DI: How would you describe some of the greatest academic needs of your incoming freshmen?

TS: The problem that we have with our reservation schools is that there has been a lot of social promotion. So, we get students who are high school graduates but can't meet our minimum requirement to enroll in college-level courses--about a 65 [Accuplacer] score, which means that they are reading on a 10th-grade level. …