Can Tribal Colleges Maintain Identity While Seeking Legitimacy?

Volume 13, No. 1 - Fall 2001
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The 33 tribally controlled American Indian colleges and universities are relatively new to United States higher education. The first college was established in 1968. Currently 28 tribal colleges are fully accredited by regional accrediting agencies. Accreditation is a complex issue with tribal colleges because of their uniqueness. This study replicated Dr. Joe McDonald’s (president, Salish Kootenai College) 1982 dissertation, “An Assessment of Accreditation Practices in Developing Indian Community Colleges Compared with Non-Indian Community Colleges in the Northwest.”

The purpose of the current study was to examine how perceptions of the importance and impact of accreditation have changed at tribal colleges since 1982. Surveys were administered to the presidents, full-time faculty, chief administrative officers, and governing board members at the same 14 tribal colleges and administrators that participated in the 1982 study. The responses from this present study were compared to the 1982 results using the chi-square test of independence to determine if views toward accreditation have significantly changed. Despite the changes in accreditation (such as agencies emphasizing assessment over minimum standards) and the changes in the tribal colleges since 1982, tribal college administrator, faculty, and board member perceptions and attitudes toward accreditation remain largely unchanged. Significant differences for this present study were found in response patterns by ethnicity. The findings of this study suggest that tribal college officials are generally satisfied with accreditation and believe in its importance and in its functions.


Accreditation is emblematic of the sometimes problematic relationship of tribal colleges to the external community. Although the colleges successfully meet reservation needs, they are dependent on outside sources for legitimacy, funding, and personnel (especially faculty). This can leave the colleges vulnerable to the holders of the resources and reduce their control of internal processes (Belgarde, 1994). This represents a cultural conflict as the tribal colleges attempt to maintain their identity while meeting externally imposed requirements. Therefore, they are attempting to meet two sets of expectations: those of the Indian community and those of external organizations.

“Accreditation is a process by which a higher education institution is periodically submitted to an overall or partial evaluation of its education activity. The aim of this evaluation is to determine whether and how the educational objectives of the institution are achieved” (Sterian, 1992, p. 1). The accreditation process involves self-study and self-evaluation, site visit by a team of evaluators from the accrediting association, and then the accreditation decision.

Accreditation is extremely important since it makes institutions eligible for federal student loans and also assists with eligibility for transferring degrees and credits to other institutions, although it does not guarantee it. In addition, private philanthropic groups often look to accreditation as an eligibility standard when distributing funds. Finally, accreditation provides for legitimacy within the higher education community.

Since their inception, tribal colleges have struggled to meet the criteria imposed by accrediting bodies. One of the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ (BIA) stipulations for eligibility to receive Tribal College Act funds is that colleges be accredited or be making a “reasonable effort” toward accreditation. Evaluation of tribal colleges by the same standards as “mainstream” institutions is particularly difficult due to specific characteristics of the tribal colleges. These characteristics include: holistic approach, insufficient financial resources, inadequate facilities, tribal language and culture preservation, unique population served, unique governance, location, and value of kinship (Appelson & McLeod, 1994; Barden, 1994; Crazy Bull, 1994).

Because of the uniqueness of tribal colleges, the concern is that accreditation will not adequately assess them. This study is significant in that it demonstrates if accreditation agencies are meeting tribal college needs, if tribal colleges should continue to seek accreditation, and if tribal colleges should pursue establishing their own accreditation agency.


Twenty-five hypotheses were tested. The hypotheses focused on the following questions, most of which are discussed in the pages to follow:

  1. How do tribal college administrators rate the importance of various accreditation functions?
  2. Is specialized accreditation or institutional accreditation more important to tribal colleges?
  3. What is the impact of accreditation on tribal colleges?
  4. Does accreditation accurately monitor non-traditional education?
  5. What is the involvement of tribal college governing board members in the accreditation process?
  6. How acceptable are alternatives to private, voluntary accreditation?
  7. How acceptable are changes to the accreditation process?
  8. Is accreditation meeting the tribal college needs?



For comparison purposes, the same colleges from the McDonald study were surveyed in this study. Tribal college officials at 15 institutions were surveyed in the McDonald study. However, one college, Flaming Rainbow College, has since closed. See Table 1 for the 14 participating colleges.


TABLE I: Participating Colleges

As in the McDonald study, four groups of college employees received questionnaires: presidents, chief administrative officers (vice presidents and deans), full-time faculty, and governing board members. The subjects were selected because they were the most likely to be involved in the accreditation process. Four hundred and ninety-six surveys were mailed to the following groups: 14 presidents, 66 chief administrative officers, 113 board members, and 303 full-time faculty.


The current study questionnaires were slightly modified versions of the McDonald study questionnaires. The modifications were made to decrease the survey length; briefer surveys may increase response rates. In addition, questions were excluded if the 1982 results were unavailable since comparisons could not be made. These modifications should not affect the results. Each of the four groups received a slightly different questionnaire, as was the case in McDonald’s study. McDonald explained: “One reason for this was the desire to address more specific questions about the institution to those persons having most direct responsibility in those areas. Another reason was that by dividing the total, more issues could be explored without a proportionate increase in the burden of responding” (McDonald, 1982, p. 38).

Data collection methods

The president of each college was contacted to obtain approval for his/her institution’s participation in the study and to ask for his/her individual participation. Two of the presidents forwarded the request to their Research Review Committees that review all proposed studies involving their schools. Both of the committees approved participation in the study.

After obtaining presidential or Research Review Committee approval of the study, a list of full-time faculty, governing board members, and chief administrative officers was obtained for 10 colleges. The remaining four colleges chose to distribute the surveys themselves rather than provide employee names. A cover letter, survey, and stamped return envelope were mailed to each participant.

Data analysis

The chi-square test of independence was used to compare the responses from McDonald’s 1982 study and the responses from this present study. Chi-square is a statistic to measure how much the observed cell counts diverge from the expected cell counts. Descriptive statistics were used to analyze the demographic data. In addition, the chi-square test of independence was used to compare sex by group (presidents, faculty, administrative officers, and board members), ethnicity by group, year of study (1982 or 2000) by group, and differences in how American Indians and Anglos responded to each item. Missing data were excluded.


Response rate and demographics

The response rate for this study was 42% with 64% of the presidents participating, 61% of administrative officers, 42% of faculty, and 28% of governing board members. Five demographic items were asked at the end of the questionnaire: ethnicity, age, sex, number of years with this tribal college, and number of years in current position. Forty-nine percent of the participants were American Indian, 46% Anglo, 4% mixed, and 0.5% other. The average age of the participants was 49 years with a median of 51 years. Forty-five and one half percent of the participants were female, and 54.5% of the participants were male.

Most employees have been at their tribal college between one and ten years (see Figure 1). The median was 7 years, and the mode (most frequently occurring) was 4 years. See Figure 2 for the number of years study participants had been in their current position, which revealed highly positively skewed results with most participants in their current position fewer than six years. The mean was 5 years and the mode was 1 year.


The majority of people were new to their positions and new to their tribal colleges. Faculty and staff turnover at tribal colleges is known to be high, but the causes are not always known. For non-Indians living on the reservation, isolation and cultural differences may be contributing factors to their short tenure at tribal colleges. Low salaries may also be a contributing factor.  Interestingly, about as many men as women participated among the faculty, administrators, and board members. The largest disparity in sex distribution was among the presidents. Although only one female president participated in this study, 12 (36%) of the 33 tribal college presidents are female.

American Indians constituted a majority for all of the groups except faculty. All governing board members were American Indian, which is to be expected. One of the definitions of a tribal college is that its board has a majority of Indian members. Only 36% of the faculty respondents were American Indian. One explanation is that tribal colleges have difficulty obtaining and retaining faculty, especially finding qualified Indian faculty members. American Indians have the lowest level of educational attainment of any ethnic group in the United States, so if tribal colleges seek faculty with college degrees, they often must search beyond their reservation.

Item responses

The study examined how responses differed between 1982 and 2000. Of the 25 items compared, only one had a significantly different response pattern. Summaries for responses for four of the eight hypotheses are below. As the responses for McDonald’s study and this study were significantly different for only one item, the responses for both studies are discussed together.

1.  How do tribal college administrators rate the importance of various accreditation functions?

  • Fostering excellence
  • encouraging institutional improvement
  • appropriate educational objectives
  • protecting against encroachments

All four functions were highly rated. Protecting against encroachments was the least highly rated, possibly because some respondents did not understand the question.

2.  What is the impact of accreditation on tribal colleges?

  • effects of self-study
  • accuracy of visiting team’s judgements
  • help/hindrance of visiting team
  • budget allocation changes
  • helped desirable change
  • hindered desirable change
  • prevented undesirable change
  • president recommended changes
  • burden of accreditation
  • costs/benefits of accreditation

This question covered a wide range of issues. The importance of the institutional self-study was rated high by most respondents although some respondents rated it low, saying their colleges did not follow-up on the self-study findings. The most frequent response for the accuracy of the visiting team’s judgements was between “moderate” and “a great deal.” The help/hindrance of the last visiting team’s judgements and suggestions was rated as “helpful” or “very helpful.” Each of the above three items had a large number of “no opinion” responses. This may be because many participants were relatively new to their college so they may not have been there when the last self-study and/or team visit occurred.

Approximately half of the presidents made budget changes and most presidents recommended changes (in areas other than the budget) as a result of the self-study. Most respondents said accreditation helped desirable change. A faculty member at a four-year college commented, “Because of the ‘newness’ of most tribal colleges, I believe the accrediting process offers a very important standard for individual and institutions new to education.” The question about “accreditation hindering desirable change” is discussed below.

Most respondents believed that accreditation does not prevent undesirable change, and the next most frequent response was that accreditation had moderately helped prevent undesirable change. Only presidents responded to the question of whether institutional accreditation had been burdensome. Their responses were fairly evenly distributed among the five response categories (“none” to “a great deal”). Most respondents felt that the benefits of institutional accreditation exceeded the costs.



Table 2 shows a significantly different response pattern between 1982 and 2000 to the question about institutional accreditation hindering desirable change. More people in the 2000 study said accreditation hinders desirable change. This may be because now that these institutions are established, they want to add programs and degrees. Newer institutions are more focused on earning initial accreditation. One administrative officer at a four-year college said, “the self-study and evaluation visit work okay. The between-time hoops to add new programs, degrees, certificates, locations, and distance learning changes are overly restrictive.”

3.  How acceptable are alternatives to private, voluntary accreditation?

  • continue/discontinue private accreditation
  • private vs. government accreditation
  • importance of continuing accreditation if eligibility of funds eliminated

Accreditation is currently a private, non-governmental, volunteer process. Most respondents believed that private voluntary accreditation should continue. They also believed that private accreditation was more favorable than state or federal regulation. Tribal colleges currently are heavily reliant on the federal government for operational funds, and therefore tribal college officials may prefer to keep the accreditation process in the private sector. Most respondents believed private accreditation should be continued even if the connection with eligibility of funds was eliminated. Tribal college officials believed the importance of accreditation extends beyond its link to eligibility for federal funds. For example, one person said private accreditation should be continued because it allows students to transfer courses to other institutions.

4. Is accreditation meeting the tribal college needs?

  • success of accreditation
  • Indian accreditation association
  • if so, replace existing associations

Many of the participants responded “don’t know” to the question, “Does accreditation work?” This may illustrate that this broad question was difficult to answer. Of those who chose “yes” or “no,” the vast majority of people responded that accreditation works. Respondents were evenly divided on the question of whether an Indian accreditation agency should be formed. As described below, the different responses were received from American Indians as compared with Anglos. Twice as many people believed that an Indian accreditation agency should not replace the current accreditation agencies. Comments showed that people believed an Indian accrediting association should complement the existing agencies to aid with the cultural understanding of tribal colleges.

Response patterns by ethnicity

Further analysis examined different response patterns of American Indians and Anglos. This comparison was for the 2000 study only as demographic data were not available for the 1982 study. Three items produced significant differences.

More American Indians believed accreditation’s function of protecting institutions against encroachments was important. This may be explained by the relationship between tribal councils and tribal colleges. This complex relationship, and how it is affected by accreditation, is the topic of Wabaunsee’s (1998) dissertation. It appears American Indians believed accreditation should protect the colleges from tribal council encroachments. Several respondent comments addressed this issue. A faculty member at a two-year college said, “Tribal politics, if left unchecked without buffers/barriers, can jeopardize our basic educational foundations. Controls need to be in place for external as well as internal interference that can thwart the educational process.”

American Indians rated the importance of institutional self-study effects higher than Anglos. The cause for this difference was difficult to determine.

Significantly more American Indians than Anglos believed an Indian accreditation agency should be formed. Many respondents commented on this item. Some American Indians believed that accreditation agencies do not properly account for cultural differences on which the colleges are based. Other respondents believed that there should not be an Indian accrediting association, as the higher education community might not regard it as equivalent to the existing accrediting agencies.


Tribal colleges should continue to obtain and maintain accreditation with the regional accrediting associations. As the impact and the importance of institutional accreditation were highly rated by participants, accreditation is viewed as very important to the success of the tribal colleges.

Tribal college representatives and regional accrediting association representatives should continue working together to help the latter understand the unique characteristics of tribal colleges. Many tribal college officials feel that the missions of their colleges are not adequately understood by accreditation officials. Tribal college officials and accreditation agency officials should collaborate so that the mission of each is adequately understood by the other party. This may help the accreditation process proceed more smoothly. In addition, more tribal college representatives should serve as accreditation Consultant-Evaluators. This may help alleviate the issue of visiting team members not fully understanding tribal college missions.

Tribal colleges and the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) should carefully investigate the benefits and costs of establishing their own accreditation association. Many tribal college officials, especially American Indians, favor establishing an Indian accreditation agency. A feasibility study should be undertaken to see if the benefit to the tribal colleges would outweigh the costs of establishing this organization. This feasibility study should include a mission statement so that the purpose of and need for the organization are clear. This statement should also clarify the Indian accreditation agency’s relationship to existing accrediting agencies.

Areas for further research

The areas for further research are based on the recommendations and the conclusions above. The first two are suggested changes to a future tribal college accreditation study. The next area focuses on high turnover of tribal college faculty and staff. The following areas focus on further research on the impact of accreditation and potential changes in the accreditation process.

A future accreditation study should include all tribal colleges. The 14 tribal colleges in this study were among the more established of the 33 tribal colleges. Do tribal college officials at newer institutions hold the same views toward accreditation as those at established institutions? Newer institutions may have different needs regarding accreditation (initial accreditation versus re-accreditation). It would be interesting to see how this affects views toward accreditation. Including all of the colleges could also provide a means of comparison between accredited and non-accredited institutions.

For a future accreditation study, consideration should be given to revamping the study questionnaires so more people are asked each item. This would present a more accurate picture of how the different groups view accreditation. For example, in the current questionnaire only administrators were asked to rate the importance of continuing or discontinuing private voluntary accreditation. General questions such as this could be asked of all participants to gain a better understanding of how tribal college officials view accreditation.

The causes for high turnover of faculty and staff at tribal colleges should be studied. Tribal colleges sometimes have a difficult time retaining staff and especially faculty. Discovering the causes of this may lead to higher retention rates. For example, if Anglo employees are leaving due to cultural differences, cultural education programs could be established to address this issue.

Factors that lead tribal colleges to successful initial accreditation should be studied. Accreditation clearly is very important to tribal college officials. The initial accreditation process can be overwhelming, especially to a minimally staffed, newly founded institution. Identifying factors that lead to successful initial accreditation may help newer colleges successfully navigate this process.

Ways to make accreditation less burdensome to tribal colleges should be analyzed. Although accreditation may be especially beneficial to new and small institutions, it may also disproportionately burden them as they have fewer resources (monetary, personnel, etc.). Therefore, making accreditation less burdensome could decrease the time it takes tribal colleges to achieve initial accreditation.

The specific ways in which accreditation hinders desirable change should be studied. Identifying the specific ways in which accreditation hinders desirable change could help the accreditation agencies strengthen their relationship with tribal colleges.

Involving full-time professional evaluators and non-educators in accreditation visiting teams should be explored. Many respondents were in favor of changing the composition of visiting teams. Research could determine the positives and negatives of these changes and could also determine why these changes are desired by some tribal college officials.

The reasons why American Indians would like their own accreditation agency should be studied further. Research could identify what needs are not being met by the current system and/or what is inadequate about the current system. Researching the causes for dissatisfaction could allow accreditation agencies to make changes.


Although the majority of American Indians at tribal colleges want to establish an Indian accreditation agency, tribal college officials are generally satisfied with accreditation. Most aspects of accreditation were highly rated, with a few exceptions. Respondents in this current study believed that accreditation hindered desirable change more than respondents did in 1982. Respondents for both studies rated the accuracy of accreditation in monitoring non-traditional education lower than other accreditation functions. Accreditation does not prevent undesirable change, according to the respondents in both surveys. Other than the above exceptions, the impact and functions of accreditation were highly rated. Most respondents believed private, voluntary accreditation should continue.

The responses for the three items that varied by ethnicity of the participants (the importance of accreditation in protecting institutions against encroachments, the effects of the self-study, and the desirability of the establishment of an Indian accreditation association) seemed to be primarily attributable to cultural issues. Some tribal college officials, especially American Indians, believed accreditation associations do not sufficiently account for the cultural components of tribal colleges.

Although dramatic changes in accreditation and in the tribal colleges have occurred since 1982, attitudes and perceptions toward accreditation remain largely unchanged. However, the issue of accreditation warrants further exploration as accreditation continues to be a prominent issue in tribal colleges.

Betsy Mennell Putman is the associate director of development for the Center for Excellence in Education at Northern Arizona University. She completed her Ph.D. in Educational Administration at the University of Austin-Texas in December 2000. She spent her four years in the program working with, researching, and writing about the tribal colleges and universities, which she continues to do in her spare time.


Appelson, W., & McLeod, M. (1994). Accreditation factors unique to tribal colleges. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the North Central Association, Chicago. IL: March 27-29, 1994. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 405 013)

Barden, J. (1994, Spring). For good measure. Tribal College Journal, 5(4), 21-24.

Belgarde, L. (1994, April). Indian colleges: A means to construct a viable Indian identity or a capitulation to the dominant society? Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, LA. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 368 536)

Crazy Bull, C. (1994, July-August). Who should pass judgement? Tribal College Journal, 5(4), 25-28. (Note: This article also appeared with the same title in Academe, 80(4), 20-25.)

Lenn, M. P. (1990). The role and value of accreditation in American higher education: At home and abroad. In T. Clayton (ed.), The Globalization of Higher Education (213-218). Language Institute of Japan, Odawara. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 329 116)

McDonald, J. F. (1982). An assessment of accreditation practices in developing Indian community colleges compared with non-Indian community colleges in the Northwest. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Montana, Missoula.

Sterian, P. E. (1992). Accreditation and quality assurance in higher education: Papers on higher education series. Bucharest, Romania: United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. European Centre for Higher Education. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 381 082)

Wabaunsee, R. M. (1998). Accreditation, tribal governments, and the development of governing boards at tribal colleges in Montana and Washington. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Washington, Seattle.

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