Tribal College Faculty Survey: Despite lower pay, faculty tend to be content, altruistic, ambitious

Volume 15, No. 3 - Spring 2004
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The first nationwide survey of tribal college faculty indicates that tribal college faculty tend to be more altruistic than their counterparts at mainstream universities and community colleges, that they are more content in their jobs despite lower salaries, and that they are much more likely to be working toward an advanced degree.

The Voorhees Group conducted the study in the spring and summer of 2003 on behalf of the American Indian College Fund, with underwriting from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. A Denver-based nonprofit, the American Indian College Fund has distributed scholarships and other support to the tribal colleges since 1989.

We conducted the survey because the organization would like to devise a strategy for enhancing the recruitment and retention of American Indian faculty for the tribally controlled colleges and universities, especially in under-represented academic areas such as mathematics, sciences, and agriculture. Tribal colleges’ first priority is good, dedicated teachers, regardless of ethnicity. At the same time, we know that American Indian faculty can serve as role models for students who identify with them, and 89% of the students enrolled at tribal colleges and universities are Indian.

The study began with input from a focus group of 14 tribal college presidents in Bismarck, ND, in April 2003, followed by a survey mailed to the 35 tribal colleges and universities (TCUs), and then a web-based survey last summer. At the conclusion of July 2003, we obtained 166 usable responses. Prior to the survey, very little was known about the characteristics and attitudes of those who teach at TCUs.

We sought to document the current status of tribal college faculty, including their demographic characteristics, satisfaction with their work, level of instructional activity, mobility, plans for future employment, and the reasons for choosing to work at tribal colleges.

Three national surveys of faculty have been conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), but they included a relatively low number of tribal college faculty. As a result, comparisons to mainstream faculty have not been possible previously, especially comparisons that might inform recruitment and retention of faculty.

Our questionnaire was modeled closely after that used in the NCES’s 1998 survey of instructional faculty so that comparisons could be made between TCU faculty and faculty at mainstream, two-year community colleges. The data generated in our survey can fill in some large gaps and lead to a fuller picture of what motivates tribal college faculty, how they perceive their work, and their plans for the future.

Here are some of the major findings of the survey:

  • Nearly 61% of tribal college faculty respondents identified themselves as white. Approximately 37% are American Indian or Alaska Native. About 2% are African American, 0.7% are Hawaii Native or other Pacific Islander, and none are Asian.
  • Tribal college faculty salaries averaged much less than those at mainstream public two-year colleges. The average faculty salary reported by survey respondents for 2002-2003 was $34,951. To make a reasonable comparison between the same points in time, TCU salaries for 1997-1998 from the NCES survey are depicted with mainstream institution salaries for the same year. That gap is nearly $18,000. Whereas the 2003 survey data indicate that some of this gap has been closed, it is also certain that even after allowing for only modest annual increases in inflation, current annual salaries at mainstream, public 2-year colleges are likely to exceed TCU salaries by almost $10,000.
  • In general, tribal colleges attract more new or first-time faculty than mainstream institutions.
  • Fewer doctorates and master’s degrees are found among tribal college faculty than faculty teaching at other public institutions, including other two-year institutions. This gap may be due, in part, to the number of American Indian faculty engaged in Native language and cultural transmission fields where qualifications to teach are based primarily on community and life experience and not on graduate credentials.
  • In comparison to faculty at public two-year colleges, it appears that, overall, American Indian faculty at tribal colleges are as satisfied as their counterparts. They appear significantly more content with their workload, opportunities for advancement, time to keep current in their field, benefits, salary, and quality of the students they teach.
  • They were less satisfied than their peers with employment opportunities for their spouses or partners in their geographic locations and the lack of opportunities to engage in outside consulting. Both of these problems could result from the rural locations of most of the tribal colleges and universities.


Despite their level of satisfaction and commitment to teaching at tribal colleges, American Indian faculty members also perceive themselves as professionally mobile, meaning they might retire or move on. The proportion that indicated they might retire in the next three years is roughly the same as their counterparts at mainstream community colleges. American Indian faculty members indicate they would be twice as likely as mainstream faculty to accept full-time work outside of a post-secondary institution within three years. They also indicate they are more likely to look for full-time work in other postsecondary institutions.

The survey also revealed that American Indian faculty members appear to be drawn to tribal colleges more for altruistic reasons than for personal gain. Typical of many of their responses was that they “want to make a difference in the lives of others” and to “teach American Indian students.” The latter reason, in particular, was expressed by American Indian faculty more than twice as often as by non-Indian faculty at tribal colleges. Other comments included: “I am a first-generation college student like many of my students” and “This is my home reservation, and I want better education for our enrolled members.”

The solutions to recruiting and retaining American Indian faculty at TCUs are complex. Money does not seem to be the largest motivator for American Indian faculty. A meaningful recruitment and retention campaign would appeal to their altruism. Part of the retention solution might be to provide more professional development opportunities at TCUs so that faculty can find new challenges.

Richard Voorhees is principal at the Voorhees Group and a former tribal college administrator and faculty member. He has been doing research with tribal colleges and related entities since 1976 and can be reached by email at Nicole Adams (Colville/Yakama) is director of foundation relations at the American Indian College Fund. Copies of the survey findings are available from the American Indian College Fund’s website at under the “Newsroom” link.

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