Tribal colleges are more than just academic institutions in their tribes. They act as unique community institutions that strengthen tribal nations and make lasting differences in the lives of American Indian and Alaska Native students. Tribal community colleges, technical schools, and four-year institutions plant resilient seeds of hope by sustaining Native languages and giving Native students the tools they need to build and support the local tribal economy.
Supporting tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) both upholds our trust responsibility and provides much needed resources for students who could otherwise go without. They offer students access to a well-rounded education that provides knowledge and skills grounded in cultural traditions and values, including all-important Indigenous language education. This enhances Native communities and enriches tribes and the United States, preparing students to succeed in their academic pursuits and enter a global, competitive workforce. And the results have been telling— 86% of TCU students complete their chosen program of study, while fewer than 10% of Native students who go directly from high school on their reservation to mainstream colleges and universities finish their bachelor’s degree.
Earlier this year, I met with a number of tribal college students who shared with me the life-changing impact their tribal college or university has had on them. One young woman told me about abuse and neglect early in her life. She said that after having two children she had little hope, but she enrolled in a tribal college. Through the opportunities and resources provided at that college, this woman found not only the opportunity for advancement and ability to live out her dream to become a lawyer, but also a family to support her.
I also met an 18-year-old girl who was homeless and sleeping on a friend’s couch. The only family she had to support and nurture her was her tribe and the tribal college. Despite facing heartbreaking realities and not having a place to call home, the young girl looked at me and said: “I will be great.” This resilient young woman would not have that hope, that belief, or that vision if she didn’t have access to education and the ability to build a better life for herself.
The tribal college on the Spirit Lake reservation in North Dakota gave a young man the tools and resources he needed to transfer to a four-year institution—and now he has graduated as the first-ever engineer from his tribe.
These stories are messages of hope in a world that sometimes feels full of despair. But tribal colleges and universities have the ability to give Native youth a solid academic foundation, a connection to their culture and to a family and support system that care about them, and an opportunity to be great.
While this success is admirable, TCUs have been hindered by chronic underfunding. Although the federal government provides funding to some minority-serving intuitions at levels equal to $33,000 per student, tribal colleges receive only a third of that. Tribal colleges and universities have consistently figured out how to do more with less, but Congress should not shy away from its federal responsibility.
Since joining the U.S. Senate, I’ve introduced a bipartisan resolution to designate a week each year as National Tribal Colleges and Universities Week. This resolution aims to bring attention to the vital work of TCUs across the country—work that has made positive and life-changing impacts on many Native youth. It’s also an opportunity to look at the disparities facing tribal colleges and universities, and a time to call for a needed investment in the services they provide.
If we truly want to change outcomes for Native youth, we must invest in Indian education—all the way from our Head Start programs to higher education. That’s what I’ll continue to fight for in the U.S. Senate.
Heidi Heitkamp is a United States Senator from North Dakota.