Wisconsin’s Tribal Colleges Overcome Challenges to Enrich Their Communities

Volume 17, No. 3 - Spring 2006
Share on Facebook0Tweet about this on TwitterPrint this page

YOUNG MINDS. The average age of College of Menominee Nation students has dropped due to the college's efforts to recruit area youths. Photo by D. Kakkak, CMN

(Editor’s note: The Research Department of Tribal College Journal is refereed by the TCJ Research Review Panel. Submissions should be sent to editor@pixelright2.com/new-tcj.)


American higher education continues to evolve to meet the ever-changing needs of the students it serves. The concept of the traditional student has never been more difficult to define, and the concept of the American college or university continues to take on a wide variety of shapes and forms.

Tribal colleges were first formed in 1968 to address the needs of American Indian students who were struggling in predominantly white institutions of higher education. Today, tribal colleges and universities focus on meeting the specific, unique needs of the communities they serve. As institutions, they vary as much as the communities in which they reside.

The basic premise behind the tribal college is simple. As Cunningham & Parker (1998) note, the purpose of the tribal college is to “blend the traditional community college goals of local economic development, workforce training, and preparation for continuing education with a combination of supplemental student support, cultural preservation and enhancement, and community outreach programs.”

This foundation is true of tribal colleges throughout the country and is readily evident in Wisconsin’s two tribal colleges. The study of Wisconsin tribal colleges can provide lessons by which all institutions of higher education can learn and grow.

Inquiry Methods

This study, conducted during the summer of 2005, employed in-depth interviews using open-ended questions to develop an understanding of the history, purposes and roles, curricula and programs, successes and challenges, and futures of the two Wisconsin tribal colleges: the College of Menominee Nation (CMN) in Keshena and the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Community College (LCOOCC) near Hayward.

Interviews were conducted with a total of eight people, including presidents, administrators, and staff at the two colleges. Field notes were summarized and conclusions were drawn based on the interviews. In each interview the participants were able to provide feedback on the conclusions being drawn during the interviews.

Tribal Colleges in Wisconsin

Institutional History

In 1982, when LCOOCC was founded, it had 4 employees and about 40 students and offered evening classes in a public school building. In 1987, the college moved into an abandoned print shop building. Since that time the college has grown to include over 100 employees and 525 students. It has built modern labs, facilities, classrooms, and a library. In 23 years it has established itself as not only the educational center for the community but as the tribal change agent as well.

College of Menominee Nation was created in 1992 with offices housed in the basement of the college president’s home. In January 1993 the college began offering four classes at the local middle school to 49 students in the areas of mathematics, cultural geography, and English. Like many tribal colleges in the United States (Boyer, 1997), the college was created in response to the struggles that residents were facing at other institutions of higher education.

From its inception, CMN focused on better meeting the needs of local American Indian and non-Indian students. In its brief history, it has begun to emerge as a successful regional institution of higher learning for all people.

College of Menominee Nation now has state-of-the-art technology centers, laboratories, and other facilities. It serves over 550 students annually and has established a successful track record of growing graduating classes, increased transfers to 4-year institutions, ever-increasing articulation agreements, and improved employment levels among its graduates.

Student Demographics

At tribal colleges throughout the nation, enrollment is growing. The students are predominately older, Native American, female students (AIHEC, 1999, Ambler, 2002, Boyer, 1995). This is true in Wisconsin as well, although the trend appears to be changing.

The enrollment at LCOOCC has grown steadily over the past 23 years. However, a few years ago the administration noticed an increase in non-Indian students on campus. According to the LCOOCC staff, the student population was almost 100% American Indian as recently as the late 1990s. Today the make-up is about 75% American Indian and 25% non-Indian. Administrators credit this shift to word–of-mouth promotion regarding the culture and climate at the community college.

Since LCOOCC had such a small marketing and advertising budget, many local non-Indian students had little or no knowledge of the school, its culture, or its climate. However, as with many tribal colleges, student satisfaction is very high, and students are the best ambassadors for the institution (Wright & Head, 1990, Cunningham & Redd, 2000).

According to administrators at College of Menominee Nation, the make-up of the student population has changed over the past two or three years as well, and, except for race and ethnicity, is beginning to compare to that of many similar community colleges in Wisconsin.

For the first 10 years of CMN’s existence, the typical student was defined, as one administrator put it, as “a 35-year-old American Indian female who was the head of her household.” In recent years, however, that has begun to change. Today, American Indian students account for roughly 70% of the approximately 550 students who attend CMN. While females still make up a majority of the student population (roughly 70%), the average age of the students is 18-24 years old.

Administrators credit the change to their efforts to modify the attitudes of the community’s young people from “if I go to college” to one of “when I go to college.” This is a message that the administrators and faculty have worked very hard to get out to local youth, beginning in the elementary schools.

As a result of those efforts, an estimated 40% of local American Indian college-bound students attend CMN right after high school, and the college expects to capture a significant portion of the remaining students within a few years of their finishing high school.

Mission, Community Service, and Impact

The mission of most tribal colleges is to preserve tribal culture, history, and traditions while providing academic preparation, vocational training, and adult education (Brown, 2003, O’Laughlin, 2002). The Wisconsin tribal colleges, for the most part, share that mission.

At LCOOCC, the mission is to “provide, within the Indian community, adult and continuing education opportunities.” The mission of College of Menominee Nation is to provide quality educational opportunities to both Menominee people and residents of the surrounding communities.

Both colleges offer a variety of associate degree and certification programs that reflect the needs of their communities, and both have articulation agreements with public and private 4-year institutions throughout the state. In addition, both offer degree programs and classes that support their cultural mission. For example, CMN offers courses such as American Indian Environmental Philosophies and Menominee Language I-III. LCOOCC offers Anishinaabe Bimaadiziwin (Introduction to Tribal Cultures) and course sequences in Ojibwe culture and Ojibwemowin language.

LCOOCC has been proactive in bringing its instructional program to the students by offering distance learning classes online and by operating outreach services on four other reservations throughout northern Wisconsin.

College of Menominee Nation’s role in the community is somewhat different from that of many tribal colleges and more similar to mainstream higher education institutions. This role is due largely to the geographic location of the campus, the mission of the college, and the needs of the community.

The Menominee Nation offers many of the community services that often fall under the umbrella of other tribal colleges, such as a community library, social services and counseling services, an adult learning center, and a strong community center.


CULTURAL CENTER. Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Community College plays a significant role in preserving the Ojibwa culture. Photo by Greg Furtman

Since these valuable services are provided by the nation, the college serves in a more traditional college capacity. The college provides jobs for local residents, serves as the educational center for the community, provides manpower and services to various community agencies through student internships and related work programs, and develops land management planning systems.

CMN has also taken a leadership role in the community by helping the tribal legislature understand and develop long-range plans for its various departments. In this regard, the college has established itself as the learning and knowledge hub for the nation.

In contrast, LCOOCC is located in a more rural setting in northern Wisconsin. Therefore, it provides not only standard community college services but also community development and educational outreach. LCOOCC houses the community public library, presents workshops for community members on everything from canning venison to regalia making, provides professional development services, and contributes significantly to the evolution of more educated boards of directors in a number of community agencies. One LCOOCC staff member said that, because of the community college, the entire community is more educated.

By employing many local residents, the community college has also changed employee relations in the community. It was the first employer in the community to issue employment contracts, insurance, or retirement benefits. Now, according to community college staff, those benefits are commonplace among community employers.

Lastly, LCOOCC plays a significant role in the preservation of various cultural aspects of the community. Through its student services office, students and community members can have their cultural, heritage, and language needs met by community college staff.

Successes and Challenges

The administration at College of Menominee Nation credits its early successes to “not having to reinvent the wheel.” Through networking and personal academic pursuits, the college president had built a lifetime of relationships with others in similar roles at other tribal colleges in the country and relied heavily on their expertise throughout the college’s growth. That availability of knowledgeable resources, combined with consistent leadership at the college, has played a major role in its success. (The current president founded the college and has served for 14 years.)

The success that College of Menominee Nation is most proud of is accreditation. The college earned accreditation within its first three years of existence and was recently awarded 10-year accreditation by the Higher Learning Commission. The college also points to its successes in the area of school-to-work initiatives and the reputation, relationships, and programs it is developing internationally. This is particularly true in the Sustainable Development program’s work with countries such as Belize and Bolivia.

Nationwide, chronic under financing and the unpredictability of funding continue to pose significant challenges to tribal colleges (Pease-Pretty on Top, 2003). The institutional operating funds that tribal colleges receive under the federal Tribally Controlled College and University Assistance Act are far below authorized levels per student.

As a result, the most significant challenge CMN has had to face over its short history is funding. Since the college has no significant state aid or property tax revenue to rely on, the vast majority of its revenue comes in the form of federal grant and contract funds and tuition. Tuition is not enough to support any institution. Given the fact that the federal funds are “soft” and unpredictable, planning from year to year can be challenging.

College of Menominee Nation is one of the few tribal colleges that benefits from gaming revenues generated by its tribe’s casino. However, these revenues account for less than 20% of the college’s annual budget.

Looking at educational systems from a K-16 perspective can provide both opportunities and challenges for tribal colleges and their communities. Pavel (1999) notes that, in order to promote successful transition and growth in students, tribal colleges need to work closely with K-12 schools to prepare students for success in higher education.

This has been a challenge for CMN as the relationship between the local high school and the college, despite their close proximity, has been disjointed. Until meaningful dialogue occurs to help alleviate student preparation and transition issues, College of Menominee Nation will continue to help one student at a time by providing GED completion programs, remediation services, and tutoring.

Another challenge that the college must address is “stopping out.” For a number of reasons, including finances and family obligations, many students at CMN choose not to take classes during the fall semester and then return in spring. While “stopping out” is not uncommon at tribal colleges (AIHEC, 1999), this can be detrimental to the students’ learning programs and can make institutional planning difficult.

A final challenge faced by the CMN administration deals with the philosophy of the college as it continues to grow. In recent years, the community has increased its requests for 4-year programs. While this may seem like a logical progression in the life of any college, the CMN administration struggles philosophically with this question.

The administration doesn’t want the college to become the “end-all” for local residents but wants them to take advantage of opportunities that are available outside the Menominee Nation, the state, or even the country. In fact, the college sees its role as being a “bridge to 4-year institutions and the world.” The college president said:

“People are born here (in the Menominee Nation) and get their day care here, K-12 schooling here, and now their higher education here, too. Many will work here. This (the nation) cannot be a vacuum, and people need to experience more in order for all of us, the Menominee people as a whole, to grow.”

While a few 4-year programs are being explored and considered, CMN still struggles with the greater need of its students. To meet this challenge, the college is developing new articulation agreements with other 4-year institutions and providing meaningful work experiences that will give students an opportunity to better meet their academic needs at different locations, including overseas.

LCOOCC has had its share of successes and challenges as well. The administration at the community college cites the attainment of accreditation in 1992 as being one of the greatest successes, followed closely by being awarded a number of competitive grants that have provided laboratories and other facilities.

As with CMN, the LCOOCC staff also identifies lack of funding as the greatest challenge of the past 23 years. The Lac Courte Oreilles Band has a small casino, but the community college receives no funds from its proceeds due to greater needs elsewhere in the community.

The Future

The staff at LCOOCC is optimistic about the future. New facilities, student growth, low faculty turnover, distance learning programs, and outreach programs all play important roles in serving American Indian and non-Indian students throughout northern Wisconsin. In addition, the community college has begun seriously exploring bachelor’s degrees in such programs as business administration, Native studies, and education.

In discussing the future of tribal colleges in general, the CMN administrators expects there to be some successes and some failures in the upcoming years, as with many small colleges. They are concerned with the ongoing funding challenges that have prohibited substantial growth at tribal colleges throughout the country and see that as a major hurdle to overcome.

The CMN administrators are very optimistic about the future of the institution. They see the college continuing to grow into a regional institution that serves the needs of a growing population through quality programs and an outstanding reputation. In addition, they want to continue to build on their strengths by establishing a state-of-the-art research center for their Sustainable Development Program so that the “world will come here” to learn more in that field.


Tribal colleges in Wisconsin have, over a relatively short period of time, demonstrated an ability to meet the needs of American Indian and non-Indian students and their communities that have not been met by traditional, mainstream institutions of higher learning. These tribal institutions were founded on the principle of combining academic growth with cultural traditions and heritage and have been of great benefit to their students and communities.

Despite a common ideological foundation of combining culture and academics into one higher education setting, each tribal college is as different as the community it serves. By exploring, understanding, and capitalizing on these differences, tribal colleges throughout the country can continue to improve. In addition, the story of tribal colleges in this country contains lessons that can be of value to mainstream universities as well. Two such lessons from this study involve resources and responsiveness, and Wisconsin tribal colleges demonstrate both very well.

Resources. Tribal colleges have, throughout their history, had to do more with less. The institutions have grown over the years to serve more and more students and, in most cases, have risen from very humble beginnings to become valuable assets to their communities, despite revenue sources being limited.

The funding for these institutions has always been grossly inadequate, yet they continue to effectively use their limited resources to meet the changing needs of their students and communities. In most cases, they are producing the same “product” as similar mainstream institutions at a fraction of the cost.

Responsiveness. Tribal colleges were created because of the failure of mainstream institutions of higher education to adequately meet the needs of American Indian students. One of the administrators interviewed for this study shared the story of a local community college president who complained that the tribal college was robbing his institution of its “potential for diversity.” He said that if he could, he would shut the tribal college down. The tribal college president’s response was simple: Had the community college been serving the needs of Native American students in the first place, the tribal college wouldn’t have to exist.

Tribal colleges have also responded effectively to the increasing need to protect culture, heritage, tradition, and language by continuing to make cultural values an important part of their foundations and missions.

Today, tribal colleges continue to meet the needs of their students and communities by offering programs and services that reflect each unique community and by providing services in a manner that is most beneficial to their students. It is this responsiveness to the needs of their communities, combined with a history of determination, resourcefulness, and perseverance, that makes the outlook for tribal colleges throughout the country very promising.

Shannon Murray is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis. His research interests include educational accountability and school improvement. He is an associate principal at Wausau West High School in Wausau, WI.


Ambler, M. (2002, September). Everyone is someone at a tribal college. Tribal College Journal, 14(1), 6‑10.

American Indian Higher Education Consortium (1999). American Indian Higher Education Consortium and the American Indian College Fund. In Tribal colleges: An introduction (pp. 31‑34) [Brochure]. Alexandria, VA.

Boyer, P. (1995). Tribal college of the future. Tribal College Journal, 7(1), 8‑17.

Boyer, P. (1997). Native American colleges: Progress and prospects. Princeton, NJ: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Brown, D. (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.

Cunningham, A. F., & Parker, C. (1998, Summer). Tribal colleges as community institutions and resources. New Directions for Higher Education, 102, 45‑55.

Cunningham, A. F., & Redd, K. E. (2000, May). Creating role models for change: A survey of tribal college graduates. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. RC 023 093)

O’ Laughlin, J. (2002, February). Financing of tribal colleges. Claremont, CA: Claremont Graduate University. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. RC 024 093)

Pavel, M. D. (1999). American Indian and Alaskan Natives in higher education: promoting access and achievement. In Next steps: Research and practice to advance Indian education (pp. 239‑258).

Pease-Pretty-On-Top, J. (2003). Events leading to the passage of the Tribally Controlled Community College Assistance Act of 1978. Journal of American Indian Education, 42(1), 6‑21.

Wright, B., & Head, P. W. (1990, Winter). Tribally controlled community colleges: A student outcomes assessment of associate degree recipients. Community College Review, 18(3), 28‑34.

2017 AIHEC Student Poetry Slam


On the opening evening of the 2017 AIHEC Student Conference in Rapid City, students from an array of TCUs entertained conference goers with the spoken word at the annual poetry slam. View the video

Life of a Tribal College Mom