Crossing the Finish Line: American Indian completers and non-completers in a tribal college

Volume 13, No. 4 - Summer 2002
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For the past 30 years extensive research has been conducted on the retention and attrition of college students. This qualitative study focused on American Indian completers and non-completers in a tribal college. By use of a series of individual interviews and focus groups, 13 participants between the ages of 21-60 told stories about experiences as they related to the societal, program, organizational, and individual factors that lead to their completion and non-completion.

The purpose of and need for the study

The purpose of this study was to explore and identify societal, organizational, institutional, family, and individual factors associated with American Indian students’ completion and non-completion in a tribal college in northern Minnesota.

The study addressed the following subjects to determine which influenced American Indian student completion and non-completion of postsecondary programs:  societal factors (racism, difficulty with socio-alienation, and cultural integration); tribal college organizational factors (advisors, registration process, support programs); tribal college institutional factors (faculty, cultural integration, and curriculum); family factors; individual factors of American Indian students (motivation, readiness for college, study skills, and problem solving ability).

There is a critical need to understand the historical framework and identity of American Indians as it relates to the college experience, as stated by Garrod and Larimore (1997): “For many American Indians, personal and cultural identity, as well as spirituality, are inextricably intertwined with connections to family, community, tribe, and homeland. This intricate web of interrelationships and the sustaining power of the values with which we were raised pushed us toward higher learning while at the same time pulling us back to our home communities” (p. 3).

Characteristics of American Indian college completers

The distinguishing features that relate to all college completers also relate to American Indian college completers. However, some characteristics essential to American Indian students who succeed are:

  • a strong self-esteem;
  • a sense of resiliency/ an ability to “bounce back”;
  • a goal-completion mentality;
  • a family support system;
  • financial aid/resources;
  • arrangements for child care, transportation, etc.;
  • an ability to “walk in two worlds” without losing personal identity;
  • a significant personal connection to a faculty/staff member;
  • access to significant help from support services early in college experience;
  • participation in cultural activities on and off campus; and
  • avoidance of drug/alcohol abuse.

(Cahape & Howley, 1992; Guyette & Heth, 1984; Falk & Aitken, 1984; Pavel, et al., 1993; Scott, 1986)

Risk factors in retention

American Indian students have a variety of risk factors that cause them to dropout of college. They include:

  • lack of money;
  • inadequate preparation;
  • alcohol/drug abuse;
  • other health problems;
  • lack of motivation;
  • housing problems;
  • loneliness/alienation at school;
  • inability to integrate into the college culture;
  • inability to assimilate/”walk in two worlds”;
  • lack of support groups of friends or staff;
  • lack of long range/career goals;
  • conflict of mores and values and customs which results in culture shock;
  • lack of role models;
  • jealousy/sibling rivalry;
  • unrealistic expectations of the college environment;
  • unrealistic concept of rewards for educated Indians;
  • lack of trust in the institution;
  • unwillingness to change; and
  • fear of not being able to return home after graduation.

(Cahape & Howley, 1992; Guyette & Heth, 1984; Falk & Aitken, 1984; Pavel, et al., 1993; Scott, 1986)

Research design

In order to investigate the questions, a qualitative research design was used: collecting data by individual interviews and focus groups. Qualitative research provides in-depth information into fewer cases. It concentrates on words and observations to express reality and attempts to describe people in natural situations (Krueger, 1994). Qualitative research can refer to research about peoples’ lives, lived experiences, behaviors, emotions, and feelings (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). Because of the nature of this research problem and the American Indian cultural perspective about telling stories, the qualitative approach used in this study was appropriate.

The sample included 13 American Indian students who made up two separate groups that attended a tribal college during the period 1996-1999: seven who successfully completed and six who did not complete their plan of study. The sample of seven American Indian completers and six American Indian non-completers was selected based on national and local demographics for gender and age. National statistics on the demographics of American Indians attending college indicate that two-thirds to three-fourths of college attendees are female. Demographics at the tribal college studied indicate that 60% of the American Indian students attending in 1996-1999 were female. After an extensive search for participants in this study, 11 females and 2 males were selected.

National demographics show the median age of American Indian students attending tribal college in 1997 was 29 to 30 years old. However, of the full-time students at the tribal college in this study in 1997-1998, only 40% were 23 years of age or older and 60% were 17-22 years of age. In this study, three participants were between the ages of 17 and 24-years old. Ten participants were between 25 and 60 years of age. Participants in this study closely resemble the population in two-year tribal colleges nationally.

The sample was established based on three criteria: age, gender, and whether the students completed or failed to complete their programs at the tribal college. Three additional factors were used to select interviewees for the study: (1) the interviewees were knowledgeable about their experiences at the tribal college; (2) interviewees agreed to participate and share their stories; and (3) interviewees represented a range of different points of view based on gender, age, and whether they completed or did not complete their programs.

A phenomenological interview design was used in this study. This design format allows the interviews to focus on the actors’ own perspectives and worldview, which then determines how they act (Krathwohl, 1998; Kvale, 1996). By using this interview design, the researcher tried to understand how the participants’ perceptions of their experiences as students at a tribal college led to completion or non-completion of their intended goals.

The study involved a series of three separate interviews with each of the 13 participants (Seidman, 1998). A series of three interviews provides enough time, privacy, and trust so that the participant can relate his or her experience, reflect on that experience, and to some extent, make sense of it. The three-interview process allows one interview to build on another, so that the participant develops a deeper understanding of the experience. After the interviews, two focus groups–one with completers and one with non-completers–were conducted.

The researcher acknowledged some personal biases: The literature review may have swayed the researcher to interpret events as more patterned and congruent than they really were, referred to as holistic fallacy (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997); the researcher’s personal lack of exposure to the experiences revealed by participants may have made it difficult to fully understand and therefore possibly misinterpret responses; the researcher may have elite bias (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis 1997), overweighing data from articulate, well-informed, high status informants and under-representing data from less articulate lower status informants; being a non-Indian may have framed interpretation of responses of a cultural nature; and having professional and personal relationships with faculty, staff, and administrators may have affected the reaction to responses about the tribal college.

Research findings

There are both internal and external societal conflicts that impact American Indians. These conflicts come from both the American Indian community and the dominant community. The pressure from one’s own community may be the “crabs in a bucket” story (when one Indian tries to leave the community to advance in a particular area of field, others pull him back “down”). The pressure from the dominant community may be in the form of overt or covert racism. In either case, the societal factors that impact educational success begin at an early age and can have a significant affect on completion and non-completion in higher education.

The key organizational factors in the tribal college that affected the completion of students were: accessibility (meaning it was close to home and inexpensive); cultural aspects of the campus, including the mix of Indian and non-Indian faculty and students and the inviting environment; and proactive support services that are attuned to the unique needs of American Indian students and can meet those needs in a timely manner. Organizational factors that prohibited the completion of students included lack of a full range of support services for evening classes, especially childcare.

The institutional factors at the tribal college that affected students most were those related to faculty, staff, culturally relevant instruction, and planning for nontraditional-age learners. Students felt the flexible, accommodating, and supportive style of faculty plus the use of alternative styles of teaching (other than lecture) made the learning environment unique and positive. Participants often compared staff members to the staff from other colleges that they had attended, saying the tribal college staff were much more student oriented and customer friendly. Students felt they developed a deeper cultural understanding of themselves and their heritage from the relevant instruction, activities, and environment at the tribal college. Many of those interviewed had been nontraditional-age students. They were employed full-time and had families. They were very directed in their goals and were less interested in any extracurricular activities at the tribal college, although they appreciated them. They valued the flexible programming most but wished there had been more of it, as well as expanded evening courses and support services.

Poverty is an all encompassing aspect of American Indian family life. Integrated in the cycle of poverty is alcohol abuse, other forms of abuse, teen pregnancy, and the family’s lack of support for education. Thus family life, whether family of origin or current family life, affected all the interviewees in their efforts to complete school. Interestingly, regardless of poverty or abuse in the family, most families encouraged their children to complete high school. However, family members often did not know what supports to provide to facilitate that process. Students spoke of role models. Parents, whether negative or positive, were the most influential role models in the students’ lives. Secondarily, teachers in the K-12 system were also important role models. The participants most often remembered those who took the time to notice and encourage students. Regardless of the age or the era in which the students grew up, there was an overt or covert message in the family that it was not okay to grow up Indian. As a result, many of those interviewed had either denied their heritage for a long time or were confused by “living in two worlds.” Many found the tribal college a safe arena in which to explore and gain better understanding of their heritage.

The idea of going to college enhanced the self-esteem of all the interviewees, whether they were completers or non-completers. Most of those interviewed did not have fond memories of their K -12 years in school. Many could easily identify how they learned best. Often their learning style benefited from more individual attention and support, which was not previously available to them for one reason or another. Many moved or changed schools often during these years so they had little opportunity to establish trusting relationships with teachers or peers.

Although everyone loses sight of their goals from time to time, those who had clear goals and had all the pieces in place to accomplish their goals were more likely to keep on track. Nontraditional-age students were often more motivated and more goal oriented, having attended postsecondary schools unsuccessfully earlier in their lives.

Based on the data collected in this study, the following factors enhance the completion of American Indian students in the tribal college:

Location. When the college is located close to or on the reservation, it is more likely that American Indians will attend. American Indian students often are not interested in traveling long distances or far from home.

Culture. The tribal college should be been seen as a cultural center as well as a college. Within this environment, both Indian and non-Indian students can learn about the American Indian culture and enhance their understanding of the culture and each other. This is a major role of the tribal college in the community.

Support services. A one-stop shopping plan, including superb customer service, is essential to students’ successful retention and completion. Support needs include: admissions, registration, financial aid, counselors, disability services, advisors, and the business office. It is not uncommon for an American Indian student to disappear and never return the first month of school because one of these services did not meet the student’s needs.

Financial aid. There are additional opportunities for American Indians, but there are also many complications in financial aid services. A well-informed financial aid officer is essential, someone who understands all possible funding sources for American Indians and can effectively direct students to those resources.

Faculty. It is essential to have American Indian faculty teaching in a tribal college. They connect the college to the Indian community, serve as role models, and relate to American Indian students as no one else can. There are not enough American Indian faculty members today. There must be an ongoing and relentless effort to increase qualified Indian faculty members and staff. In lieu of American Indian faculty, an extensive program is needed for faculty and staff to promote and encourage culturally relevant instruction and support services.

Expanded programs. Nontraditional students and full-time employed students need more evening classes (with child care), interactive television courses, and web site courses.

Expanded outreach. The high incidence of poverty, single parenting, and under-preparedness for higher education in the American Indian population all affect students. Tribal college administrators can tackle many key barriers to consistent attendance by providing housing, adequate child care, and an effective and affordable transportation system.

Advisors. The majority of American Indian students who enter the tribal college lack self-esteem, based on previous school and personal life experiences. This should be addressed aggressively to retain students. Training more faculty as advisors and expanding their advising role could dramatically increase awareness of student needs and provide earlier intervention.

Findings and conclusions

There are several implications for policy makers, administrators of postsecondary institutions, families, and individuals. There are also implications for future research.

Policymakers: Financial aid problems are a serious barrier to American Indian college students. Policymakers at all levels–federal, state, and tribal–could alleviate this dilemma by providing consistent long-term funding to American Indian students to complete their education.

Tribal council members can create more opportunities for individuals to come back to their reservations and work after they have completed their college degrees. Tribes could use tribal revenues, such as gaming profits or royalties to support, for example, small business loans or effective transportation systems. This would entice well-educated community members to come back after college, live in the community, reinvest in their communities, and continue to build the infrastructure, thereby enhancing the quality of life for all on the reservation.

Administrators of postsecondary institutions: Administrators in higher education must supply institutional supports for the unique academic, cultural, and social needs of American Indian students. Cultural centers, clubs, learning resource centers, and meeting areas provide a safe and comfortable place for students to be together and support each other. Making a concerted effort to hire qualified American Indian faculty and staff will promote a welcoming atmosphere as well as natural role models for students. Encouraging faculty and staff to be accessible to students on an individual basis promotes one-on-one interaction that is less confrontational than in-class questions and is more supportive to American Indian students. Promoting a learning environment where oral language traditions and other cultural instructional techniques are taught and fostered within the context of the curriculum will create a more positive learning environment.

Families: The interviewees in this study all believed, to some degree, that their family of origin wanted them to go to school. Beyond this basic level, families differed greatly in their ability to emotionally, socially, and economically support the interviewees in their pursuit of education. There are a multitude of reasons Indian families do not promote education. Many family members experienced the boarding school era. Those from more recent generations lived through overt racism and oppression in the public school system. Therefore it is extremely important that the American Indian community including tribal council, K-12 schools, Head Start programs, and Indian mental health programs have a proactive role in assisting families to support each other. Community members must listen to their elders and go back to cultural roots of education for American Indians. They must address the following questions: Why is education important? How is it transmitted to youth? How can we promote education and culture? The core value of education must be re-established within the community itself.

Individuals: From this study, it was evident that participants who had clearly thought out goals and a “Plan B” to back those plans were more likely to accomplish their goals. Regardless of the level of assimilation, the more that individuals knew about their own Indian heritage, the greater their sense of comfort with themselves, regardless of whether they looked Indian or not. The less they knew about their own heritage the more likely they were to have lower self-esteem and a sense of internalized oppression. Based on this knowledge, we must provide more supports and boundaries for our Indian youth so they can set their own boundaries, develop goals for the future, and learn to advocate to reach these goals.

Implications for Future Research

There are several potential areas for future research regarding why American Indian students complete and do not complete their higher education goals. Continued studies are needed on the implications of internalized oppression and the struggles for balance between traditional American Indian culture and assimilation. If we can learn more about the deep and long lasting effects of assimilation, we can begin to direct our energies toward truly supporting balance and well being among American Indian college students, thereby helping them attain their personal and academic goals.

Jean E. Ness, Ed.D., directs several projects at the University of Minnesota related to the transition and retention of American Indian students in high school and postsecondary education. She earned her doctorate in 2001 from the University of Minnesota in educational policy and administration. She can be reached at <> or by mail: 15 Pattee Hall, 150 Pillsbury Dr. SE, Minneapolis, MN 55455.


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