Successes and Challenges in Higher Education Transitions

Volume 19, No. 1 - Fall 2007
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SUPPORTIVE FAMILY. L to R: Fort Belknap student, Olivia Main with her baby Kyan Steab, and her mother Joey Snow. Photo by Mary Annette Pember.

This article is based on a 3-year research study of students attending various tribal colleges in science fields who transitioned to larger universities to complete their degrees. The study sought to determine the most common experiences, successes, and challenges of the students. The results demonstrated that the successful transition of a student to a larger university depended on 1) financial security; 2) academic readiness; and 3) personal, cultural, and social support. The specific comments of the students are shared to highlight these issues and to provide examples of where tribal colleges and universities are doing well and where they can improve.

Tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) provide an education that is student- centered, flexible, and acknowledges and respects their students’ Native heritage (Robbins, 2005, Wassegijig Price, 2005). Price writes that at Sisseton Wahpeton College, “the values and traditions of the Dakota people can be seen in the pedagogy, architecture, policies, and procedures of the tribal college” (p. 19).

While TCUs work to serve the particular needs of their tribal communities, TCU students aspire to become contributing members of their Native communities (AIHEC, 2000, Ambler, 2005). There is a sense of camaraderie among students who attend TCUs. One student said, “I find my strength in knowing my brothers and sisters are out there struggling with me.” This sense of family supports the students during and beyond their time enrolled at the TCUs.

The students in this study were part of the Tribal Scholars Program sponsored by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the American Indian College Fund. The scholars were enrolled in various science fields, such as engineering, environmental science, and nursing, and were working to complete bachelor’s degrees at larger universities.

Their experiences offer an opportunity to better understand the best practices for the TCUs and larger universities to enable the success of tribal college students who must transition to a 4-year institution to complete their degree programs.

Research on TCUs has shown that TCU students have been challenged by similar financial and personal problems as other higher education students. In a study of degree completers and non-completers at one tribal college, Ness (2002) found that those students who completed their degree had more resilience, higher self-esteem, and more motivation toward achieving their goals than the non-completers.

The students had better ability to manage challenging issues when they attended TCUs, which provide an education close to home and family. In turn, the TCUs provide support for students through a culturally meaningful and appropriate curriculum and a strong sense of community (Brown, 2003).

The differences in academics, social, and personal life can become problematic, particularly in the science fields, however, when students leave their tribal colleges to complete their degrees elsewhere. There are many reasons. Universities vary in their recognition of traditional Indigenous knowledge, which students learn and practice at the TCUs as valid, scientific knowledge (Lambert, 2003). Many tribal colleges have incorporated Indigenous science into their curriculum.

Worldview differences can inhibit the mainstream universities’ acknowledgement and respect for that knowledge. In turn, students are less prepared for the typical mainstream academic environment because of these differences (Ambler, 2003).

Still, despite these differences between mainstream and TCU academic environments, TCU students often continue their education at mainstream universities in order to complete their degrees (Wright and Head, 1990). Thus, it is important to understand their academic, social, and personal experiences after making this transition.

The transition to a larger university is a drastic change from the tribal college environment. Research is not available that indicates how much support is available for these students since they attend different universities across the country. Nor is there research about how frequently these students utilize support systems.

The research question that drove this study was: What are the issues of most concern for TCU science students when transitioning from their tribal colleges to larger universities? By investigating this question, the TCUs and universities can learn how to successfully and positively influence TCU science students’ navigations into and through larger universities.

Tribal Scholars Program Summary

The Tribal Scholars program enabled American Indian and Alaska Native science students at tribal colleges to complete their undergraduate degrees. The program was active for approximately 10 years and served over 100 tribal college students.

It provided substantial scholarships to selected candidates to support their last two years of study. In turn, students had to maintain a 3.0 Grade Point Average and full-time status to maintain their awards.  The program ended when funding was discontinued.

Methodology and Procedures

I gathered the Tribal Scholars’ perspectives for the study through questionnaires and interviews. In general, the scholars were asked about 1) their preparation at their tribal colleges, 2) their study skills, 3) the level of support available to them at the larger universities, and 4) their transition, academic, and personal experiences in their larger universities. Thirty-six students participated in this study in 2002-2003; in 2003-2004, participants numbered 29; and 21 participated in 2004-2005.

Analysis consisted of tabulating average responses in the questionnaire and common topic areas addressed by the students in their interviews. The diversity of the TCUs and the diversity of the students themselves resulted in varied experiences at the larger universities.

In one cohort year, there were significant differences in the transition, academic, and personal experiences between the scholars who maintained their award and those who lost it or withdrew (p < .000 for each category).

Those students who lost their award or withdrew from the program had perceived significantly more difficult or challenging experiences when they left their tribal colleges for the larger universities.

The sections below will provide more insight into those scholars who had successfully maintained their awards and the reasons they attributed to their success.

The Necessity of Financial Security

Financial needs are not unique to tribal college students. However, for most of the students in this study, without the scholarship from the Tribal Scholars Program, they would not have attended a 4-year degree program. It was a necessity because many of the students had families to support.

In fact, even with the award, many students maintained part-time, and some full-time, employment. The award paid for their tuition and related educational expenses. But it also empowered them with the ability to complete their degrees and potentially realize their educational and professional goals with much less financial burden, thus creating a more positive outlook on their future.

The students commented positively each year about this benefit of their award. For example:

  • The scholarship has helped me to concentrate on my classes. My first semester in college, I was trying to work full time, I’m a mom, and I was going to school full time. Now, I’m doing so much better. I got a 4.0. The scholarship gave me more confidence to pursue environmental science because I had more time to study, and I had less stress because I knew the bills were paid.
  • It will help me a lot because of the driving about 100 miles roundtrip 4-5 days per week, paying a baby sitter for my kids, and less stress, knowing there is money to help me.
  • Since I received the scholarship, I have been able to take full advantage of our environmental science classes and have been able to go for a double major in wildlife fisheries and restoration ecology along with a minor in forestry.

Clearly, the scholarship paid the educational expenses of the scholars, but it also enabled their success and gave them a positive outlook about their ability to pursue additional courses and degrees. It gave them time to focus on their studies, the overall feeling of support for their education, and the resulting belief that they could accomplish their goals. For many of the scholars, they already had the drive and the skills to complete their degree; they just needed the finances.

Perspectives on Academic Readiness

The scholars had a variety of opinions about their academic readiness to enter the larger universities. Their comments ranged from issues of self-motivation and competence to the preparation they received at their TCUs.

By the nature of their selection for the Tribal Scholars Program, the students were high achievers with a high level of academic competency. But there were significant differences among the scholars in their academic experiences at the larger universities, suggesting differences in their readiness for the university and differences in the academic support they received.

For many students, academic success depends on one’s self-motivation and initiative. Thus, these students attributed their success to claiming ownership over their own education. The two comments listed below convey this attitude well.

  • Some say my tribal college didn’t prepare students enough for the university. I prepared myself and didn’t rely on others. I’m responsible and self-disciplined. I do things on my own and take the initiative by asking questions and finding help when needed.
  • When I needed help, I found help. I have a 3.6 GPA. Everything is very accessible. It’s all up to the student to find help.

Other students attributed their academic success to effective teaching styles and supportive faculty. These students appreciated being challenged in their courses while at the same time having support available to enable them to meet the high expectations set for them.

Students referred to having a positive and personal relationship with faculty, especially with faculty who learned about their heritage and personal circumstances, such as having a family to support and the distance they have to commute to school.

Those students who had more difficult experiences with their academics blamed poor study skills and a lack of awareness and preparation for the differences in course expectations.

One cohort of scholars who successfully maintained their awards had significantly higher self-ranked study skills than those scholars of their cohort who lost or withdrew from their awards. Those study skills included reading comprehension, test taking, note taking, writing, and organization and time management.

In terms of their academic awareness and preparation, the scholars shared various perspectives regarding their experiences at their TCUs. The students were asked how well they felt their tribal colleges prepared them for the academic expectations at the universities.

The table below shows the diversity of responses. More than two-thirds of the students felt their TCUs provided them with strong to the best preparation for the larger university (n=21), but one third of the students felt they received fair to weak preparation (n=10).

QUALITY OF PREPARATION GRAPHICFigure 1: Scholars’ perceived academic preparation from their tribal colleges (N=31)

Their comments provide some insight into these results. Coming from TCUs all over the country, the scholars encountered a wide array of academic experiences. Of those scholars who perceived strong preparation at their TCUs, many attributed it to programs the TCUs had set up to directly transfer credits and/or to prepare them for a specific university.

For example, one scholar during an interview explained a unique program at his tribal college for natural resource management. He said he benefited from the educational structure of the program, which he called a “learning village.” He belonged to a cohort of students who went through the program together. The learning village provided an inherent academic and personal structural support system that was well suited to his learning style. He said,

It gave me the foundation to move on to the 4-year college. It was very effective, and I don’t think I could get that type of support anywhere else. It was like it was made just for me. Thirty of us went through the program, and I know I wouldn’t have made it if it weren’t for the learning village. So when I walked into the classroom at my university, I was more well prepared than any other student. It took a couple of weeks for them to catch up to me. I had confidence, and knew the topics academically well.

Of those scholars who felt they received fair to weak preparation at the TCUs, many said they were not ready for class size differences, less interaction time with faculty, and the differences in academic rigor and pace of the universities’ courses.

One student referred to not understanding assignments and course expectations well because there was less attention paid to students at the university. Another felt the tribal college did not challenge them enough and spoke of three classmates from the tribal colleges that failed out of the nursing program at the university. Another described the lack of readiness for the fast pace of the university courses and expressed desire for these courses to be available at their tribal colleges instead.

Their comments suggest the transfer problems might be reduced through more articulation agreements and through students’ heightened awareness of their chosen universities’ academic environment.

Personal, Cultural, and Social Support

The universities that serve TCU transfer students need to be aware of the needs and goals of these students in order to successfully integrate them. While several scholars said they felt supported by their universities, others said their universities were ineffective at making them feel welcome in the new environment.

Students praised the universities that showed interest in their specific needs as Native students in science fields. These universities offered support systems, programs, and networks as resources for the students.

But the help of one faculty member or one advisor often made the scholar’s experience positive. Students provided these comments about highly supportive university environments:

  • They understand my circumstances as an older student. I utilized the tutors in the math and science lab heavily. I wouldn’t have passed calculus without tutoring help.
  • There is an academic learning center, a writing center, and a variety of ways that the school helps you academically. The faculty is very interactive, and plenty are willing to help students if and when they need it. There are student services and internship departments that work with the students also.
  • Individual professors and my relationships with them have been my best asset. When they know me, they know what I can do.

At the universities where students had more difficulty, there was limited or no support for Native students. The scholars felt the universities did not care about them and did not understand their needs and backgrounds as tribal college students.

Basically, these universities came across as apathetic to their concerns, and the environment often became a hostile one for the students. The comments below illustrate this unreceptive environment well.

  • There was really no sense of community at the larger school. At my tribal college, we were all a part of the same family. At my university we are there to listen and learn; there really is no time to become too close knit. The worldview is different, and although I’ve attended public schools all of my life, I never was comfortable with it.
  • I had no support group to help me transfer into college. Teachers treated me different when they found out I came from a tribal college. I had no one to talk to about my classes because my advisor is never around.
  • I felt alone, isolated, but I knew I could handle the courses. I just felt alone. The courses weren’t easy, but I had gained enough skills at the tribal college to navigate through them.

These comments exemplify the necessity of support programs and resources for TCU students who transition to larger universities. This support is best when it caters to their specific needs, concerns, and strengths.

At the same time, it is important to note that the TCU students are not powerless, and many successfully navigate and graduate from unsupportive universities. For many Tribal Scholars, it was the support from just one individual within the university that made the difference.

The scholars also created their own support networks through their peers. Some students indicated they found strength in knowing other Native students were pursuing the same goals and encountering the same challenges at other universities.


The Tribal Scholars in this study have provided insights into how TCUs and universities can better serve TCU students. In essence, the scholars aspired to have a university environment similar to their tribal colleges. Although those environments were usually quite different, their experiences bring awareness to common places of struggles and challenges and to the scholars’ shared sense of strength, self-discipline, and perseverance.

The TCU students have also shown that financial resources and security are essential for embarking on and completing a degree. TCU students have large responsibilities because many have families that depend on them.

Students also expressed the importance of programs and agreements between TCUs and universities to make the academic, social, and cultural transition into the university a positive and successful experience.

Support programs for personal, cultural, and academic issues make students feel that they are part of the university community and that the university cares about and understands their backgrounds and goals.

The scholars did not specifically mention attitudes toward Indigenous knowledge in science fields at their universities. However, some of their personal experiences with isolation, ignorance of their heritage, and disrespect suggest a lack of awareness of Indigenous knowledge and of Indigenous people’s experiences in general. This can create a hostile environment. Those universities that the scholars felt provided strong support had acknowledged their backgrounds and set up academic and personal support centers or resources, much like the environment at their TCUs.

It is important to teach TCU students how to create their own support systems where they are lacking at the universities. For many Tribal Scholars, their support system was each other.

In this information age, it is possible to create virtual communities of support. Perhaps it is necessary to create these types of communities for all TCU students who transition to larger universities so they can maintain their connections. Such virtual communities might provide a support base to draw from in times of struggle and to celebrate with in times of success.

Transitioning from one college to another is difficult for anyone. For TCU students, those tribal colleges and mainstream universities that can recognize and address the particular needs and strengths of these students will make that transition much easier, the success of those students much more probable, and the students’ positive impact in their home communities much greater.

Tiffany S. Lee, Ph.D., is Diné and Lakota.  She is an assistant professor in Native American Studies at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque


American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC), Institute for Higher Education Policy, and Sallie Mae Education Institute (2000) Creating role models for change: A survey of tribal college graduates. Tribal College Research and Database Initiative Research Report, a collaborative effort between AIHEC and the American Indian College Fund.

Ambler, Marjane (2003). Indigenizing our future. Tribal College Journal, 15(1), 8-9.

Ambler, Marjane (2005). Recycling lives – students to believe in. Tribal College Journal, 17(1), 8-9.

Brown, Donna (2003). Tribal colleges: Playing a key role in the transition from secondary to postsecondary education for American Indian students. Journal of American Indian Education, 42(1), 36-45.

Lambert, Lori (2003). From ‘savages’ to scientists: Mainstream science takes first step toward recognizing traditional knowledge. Tribal College Journal, 15(1), 10-12.

Ness, Jean (2002). Crossing the finish line: American Indian completers and non-completers in a tribal college. Tribal College Journal, 13(4), 36-40.

Price, Michael Wassegijig (2005). Seeds of Educational Sovereignty – Sisseton Wahpeton cultivating culturally-centered learning. Tribal College Journal, 16(3), 18-24.

Robbins, Rebecca (2005). Spirit of the colleges, voice of the people: Students share pain, hope through art. Tribal College Journal, 17(1), 10-13.

Wright, Bobby, and Head, Patrick Weasel (1990). Tribally controlled community colleges: A student outcomes assessment of associate degree recipients. Community College Review, 18(3), 28-33.

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