On the RIGHT PATH

By Shirley, Valerie J. | Black Issues in Higher Education, June 17, 2004 | Go to article overview
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On the RIGHT PATH


Shirley, Valerie J., Black Issues in Higher Education


OVER THE PAST 20 YEARS, COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES CONTINUE TO EXPERIENCE AN INCREASE IN THE NUMBER OF AMERICAN INDIAN/ALASKA NATIVE STUDENTS RECEIVING DEGREES

Accounting for only 1 percent of the total U.S. population, American Indians have a 60 percent to 70 percent high school dropout rate, the highest among all minority groups. At the same time, however, more American Indian students than ever are graduating from high school and leaving their home communities behind in pursuit of a higher education.

Leaving their communities behind also means trying to maintain a balance between their indigenous values and beliefs and that of the dominant culture's. And despite their high dropout rates and the fact that 30 percent of the American Indian population lives below the poverty line, they recognize that education is the key to a better future.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (1999-2000), there has been tremendous growth in the number of earned degrees in postsecondary institutions serving American Indian and Alaska Native students.

The number of American Indians/Alaska Natives earning associate's degrees more than doubled from 1984 to 2000, with the largest percentage of students, 31 percent, majoring in liberal arts and sciences, general studies and humanities.

The number of American Indian and Alaska Native students receiving bachelor's degrees also doubled from 1984 to 2000, jumping from 4,246 in 1984 to 8,711 in 2000. In 2000, the largest percentage of graduates majored in business, 17 percent, followed by social sciences and history, 11 percent.

Graduate schools also have seen an increase in the number of American Indian and Alaska Native students obtaining degrees since 1984. In 2000, the majority of graduate students received a master's in education, 33 percent, followed by business, 19 percent. The number of American Indian/Alaska Natives students receiving doctoral degrees increased from 119 in 1984 to just 159 in 2000, whereas the number of American Indian/Alaska Natives students receiving first professional degrees more than doubled from 1984 to 2000, with 248 students receiving a first professional degree in 1984 compared to 564 in 2000. Law and healthcare professions, such as medicine, pharmacy and dentistry, were the most popular professions among American Indian and Alaska Native professional degree recipients.

GROWING THEIR OWN

Despite the increase in the number of American Indian/Alaska Natives receiving degrees, the percentage is still relatively small compared to the total American Indian and Alaska Native population. There's no doubt, however, that the steady growth of tribally controlled colleges and universities in the United States has contributed to the increase in graduates across the board.

The 33 tribal colleges and universities (TCU) located on or near reservations - starting with the founding of the first tribally controlled college Dine (Navajo) College in 1968 - were established to serve the needs of their own Native communities - preserving, enhancing and promoting the language and culture of their tribe and integrating their tribe-specific worldview.

The tribal colleges and universities' open enrollment policies allow for a diverse range of students to apply, including those with low GPAs in high school; those who have dropped out of high school and received a GED; elders returning to school; students with learning disabilities; students from low-income households; those who plan to transfer to four-year institutions; and even non-Native people.

The majority of tribal colleges offer two-year associate's degrees, several offer four-year degrees, and a few offer graduate degrees, specifically in the field of education and leadership. It's also noteworthy that tribal colleges and universities have more female presidents than any other type of institution. Many American Indian students say that they chose to attend their tribal college because it was close to home and provided social and emotional comfort.

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