Retention Strategies Rely Upon Tradition, Innovation

Volume 22, No. 4 - Summer 2011
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Within the pages of the summer issue of Tribal College Journal, our writers explore a daunting topic: the recruitment and retention of Native students at tribal colleges and universities (TCUs).

As Mary Annette Pember (Red Cliff Tribe of Wisconsin Ojibwe) found while researching her story, “Circles of Strength,” at both mainstream colleges and TCUs, fewer men than women are enrolling and graduating from college—a trend that began in the late 1970s.

HEAVY LIFTING. Students from United Tribes Technical College are putting their skills to work. United Tribes News photo by Dennis Neumann.

There’s no consensus yet for the reasons behind the disproportionate numbers. But the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) has been tracking the data.

According to its American Indian Measures of Success (AIMS) Fact Book, in 2008, the majority of degree-seeking students at tribal colleges and universities were American Indian females, at 53.4%. Among the 35 reporting TCUs, 31.0% were American Indian males. (The others were non- Indian.)

As you’ll read in Pember’s story, many TCUs, including Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe Community College, Cankdeska Cikana Community College, Fort Peck Community College, and Leech Lake Tribal College, are reaching out to male students in particular. In many instances, they emphasize programs that will attract and interest male students. (These include agriculture and farming, automotive technology, building trades, computer science and technology, corrections, engineering, and environmental science.)

But Pember also shares stories about innovative new programs that are drawing on tradition, culture, and language to help them stay in school—and that just might be the way to truly build student success.

Meanwhile, at Salish Kootenai College (SKC, Pablo, MT), Dr. Stacey Sherwin is working with instructors, the SKC Office of Institutional Research, Adult Basic Education staff, and the campus retention personnel to increase the success of SKC students who start their college careers in developmental or remedial education.

As she points out, between 40% and 60% of all community college students require at least one year of developmental coursework—but success for students in developmental studies is limited.

“Study after study has found that national success rates for students who start in developmental studies are dismal,” she writes. “Many of those who place into developmental courses never advance to higher levels of college courses.”

According to AIHEC, about 80% of tribal college students take at least one developmental studies course. A retrospective study at SKC has shown that only about half of the students completed the courses—and many of those did not continue on to college-level courses.

Now, with grants from the Lumina Foundation for Education and the Walmart Foundation, SKC is studying the problem and implementing positive changes by working with individual students and within individual departments as well as by looking at institution-wide changes.

For his part, Dr. Jeremy Guinn has been working with other faculty at Sitting Bull College’s Environmental Science Program (SBC, Fort Yates, ND) to engage students in research and the scientific method. Over the past 15 years, the department has evolved to require that all students defend a full research project for graduation. According to Guinn, students are pursuing research enthusiastically—and research has proven to be a useful retention tool.

Just consider the words of one junior in SBC’s Environmental Science program: “The main reason that I chose the science program was because of all the research opportunities that it has to offer,” says Harriet Black Hoop (Dakota). “For me, it’s the hands-on aspect. I really enjoy the field work—it’s awesome!”

In fact, tribal colleges across the nation are figuring out innovative ways to recruit and retain students. Many, like the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, are trying to improve student success through the formal development of comprehensive retention plans. But not all plans focus solely on the classroom.

In Montana, for instance, Fort Belknap College has partnered with five other Montana tribal colleges—Fort Peck College, Blackfeet Community College, Salish Kootenai College, Stone Child College, and Little Big Horn College— to form the Montana Tribal College Basketball League.

As Fort Belknap’s Rebecca Bishop tells us, many Native athletes were going off reservation to play college basketball. Sometimes, she says, a student would suffer culture shock and quit. Faculty at the tribal colleges knew that these students might return to school if their homeland colleges offered incentives for athletic competition.

So far, FBC has successfully recruited 33 American Indian student athletes to play as Fort Belknap College Eagles.

As Bishop says, student athletes are held to high standards: Players must sign a contract to keep the established grade point requirement, participate in peer study groups, and attend all practices and games.

The team has also partnered with young students at the White Clay Language Immersion School—the team’s first grade cheerleaders. White Clay’s director, Dr. Lynette Chandler, points out that it introduces the elementary school students to tribal colleges and Native athletes at a young age.

Those intergenerational influences are important throughout the tribal college system. Consider Lucy Barrett (Red Lake Nation Band of Chippewa), who Red Lake Nation College President Dan King, also a tribal member, profiles in this issue.

Barrett decided to attend Red Lake Nation College after retiring from her job at age 66. Six years later, she has earned three degrees and is now an instructor at the tribal college. Not only that, but she is inspiring other students as well as her own children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. At his own graduation from kindergarten, her great-grandson Damon shouted out: “Oh, I’m just like Gramma now!”

It’s important, too, that while understanding and improving the problematic recruitment and retention rates of Native men at tribal colleges, no one overlooks the achievements of Native women in recent decades. More Native women are attending college than ever before. Many of them are mothers, grandmothers, and even great-grandmothers. And many of them are also moving into positions of leadership across the nation. That can only be a very good thing—for individual families and communities, as well as for tribal colleges.

I’d like to thank all of our writers and photographers for contributing to the summer issue of TCJ. Many of our contributors are TCU instructors, and it’s obvious through their work and words that they care deeply about the success of their students.

Most of all, I’d like to thank all of our readers and invite you all to please consider sending us your thoughts about the challenges that Native tribal college students—male and female—face in staying in school. (Send us an email.) We’d like to know what our readers think about the topics in this issue—and most of all, we’d like to continue talking about how to help keep students in school through graduation.

Laura Paskus is interim editor of Tribal College Journal. She can be reached at

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