Campaign of Hope: Research finds scholarships, new facilities enhance learning experience

Volume 15, No. 2 - Winter 2003
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“The College Fund scholarship allowed me to go back to school and get my second degree, which enabled me to start my own business. I was a single parent, working two jobs, going to school full time, and now I have the means to support my kids, doing something I love.”  

“As for me, it saved my life. Without this scholarship, I would not have been financially able to fix my car. Without my car, I could never have been able to get to college to finish. You would not believe how thankful I am to have received it.”

The American Indian College Fund has released a new study of tribal colleges and their graduates. Conducted by Harder+Company Community Research in 2002-2003, the survey documents the changing demographics of tribal college students, who are getting younger and more diverse, partly as the result of new facilities on many campuses. It found the new facilities have a dramatic impact on the educational experience and on the colleges’ role in the communities.

CHARACTERISTICS OF TRIBAL COLLEGE GRADUATESHarder+Company delved into two primary areas: 1) the educational experiences of American Indian students who received scholarships from the College Fund and 2) the impact of improved tribal college facilities. In the first part of the study, the researchers asked the graduates questions about their educational experiences at both tribal colleges and nontribal institutions, the impact of receiving an American Indian College Fund scholarship, and their personal and professional experiences after graduation. The research confirms past studies that say tribal college graduates are more likely to persist and graduate from other higher education institutions than Native American students who do not go to tribal colleges.

The College Fund’s scholarships played a critical role in the students’ success, according to the survey. The report authors suggest other reasons for the success. “Tribal colleges utilize an assets-based model of education, building upon the strengths of American Indian culture. They value the role of family and community in Native students’ lives, provide flexibility to support students who must leave for familial or tribal obligations, and offer personal and cultural growth courses through an explicitly American Indian-oriented curriculum and environment.”

The research concluded that many survey respondents attended a tribal college because it was close to home. Because of family and tribal responsibilities and loyalties, some respondents might not have achieved their degrees without the presence of a tribal college. On average, graduates supported three people, including foster or step-children, grandparents, uncles, nieces, and other extended family members. One student had 12 dependents.

Many survey respondents graduated from their tribal college with a strong sense of their American Indian heritage and sought further education not only to benefit themselves and their immediate family but also to give back to the larger Indian community.

The first part of the research was conducted by mail survey. Harder+Company matched the names of students who had graduated from tribal colleges in 2001 or 2002 with the College Fund’s database of scholarship recipients. A total of 366 graduates from 30 tribal college universities returned surveys to Harder+Company for analysis, resulting in an overall response rate of 49.9%.

The capital campaign portion of the research was conducted using on-site visits to six tribal colleges: Blackfeet Community College in Browning, MT; Crownpoint Institute of Technology in Crownpoint, NM; Fort Peck Community College in Poplar, MT; the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, NM; College of Menominee Nation in Keshena, WI; and Turtle Mountain Community College in Belcourt, ND.

When the nation’s tribal colleges founded the American Indian College Fund in 1989, they asked the staff to raise money from the private sector for tribal college student scholarships, as well as college endowments and operating funds. A decade later, the College Fund expanded its role by launching Sii Ha Sin, a multi-million-dollar campaign to raise funds for tribal college facilities. (Sii Ha Sin means “hope” in the Navajo language.)

Prior to the Campaign Sii Ha Sin, many campuses operated from dilapidated campuses composed of abandoned buildings or temporary structures. In many cases, the bricks and mortar that kept the tribal colleges operating had not been the physical buildings but rather the sheer drive of the students and the dedication of the faculty and staff. At Blackfeet Community College, for example, students attended classrooms infested with snakes and rodents, according to the report. Many case study respondents shared that, prior to the construction projects, colleges were perceived by Native and non-Native people as “third world” or “Mickey Mouse” colleges.

As the colleges received financial assistance from Campaign Sii Ha Sin, every college expanded or improved its campus. Often the first building constructed specifically for the college was built with College Fund assistance. The colleges leveraged campaign funds to attract other money from federal, state, and private funders with the help of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.

At the colleges, a research team interviewed board members, administrators, staff, current students, and tribal elders. When the facilities improved, most colleges experienced increased enrollment and drew younger students. The improved colleges are now a central meeting place for the surrounding community and a venue for cross-generational and cross-cultural interaction. As one of the few facilities of size in rural areas, these spaces provide a positive, safe environment for community gatherings, arts and humanities programs, and exercise.

The expansion of the colleges’ student base has presented a new challenge for colleges, as many have already filled the spaces they built. Because of the comfortable, appealing surroundings, the colleges are also increasingly attracting non-Native students, for which they receive no federal support. The demand for education is quickly outstripping the available facilities. Continued funding will be critical to ensure the continued success.

The newest research follows up on Harder+Company surveys and focus groups in 2000 and 2001, which delved into student experiences with tribal colleges and their professional and personal experiences since graduating or leaving tribal colleges.

A limited number of copies of the report are available from the American Indian College Fund. Write to the American Indian College Fund, ATTN: Harder Cultivating Success Report, 8333 Greenwood Blvd., Denver, CO 80221, or e-mail For more information about the College Fund, see or call (303) 426-8900.

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