BLOG: What We Can Learn about Equity from Tribal Colleges and Universities

By Cindy Lopez, Director of Tribal College and University Programs, in Collaboration with Colleagues from the American Indian College Fund


Closing achievement gaps among students of different races, ethnicities, and financial backgrounds is a shared value that brings Achieving the Dream colleges together. In accordance with our equity statement, we commit to offering students what they need to succeed. But determining how best to do that is perhaps the most difficult challenge we face. As we think about equity and look for solutions, the philosophy and experience of some of the ATD Network’s newest colleges, the country’s 35 tribal colleges and universities (TCUs), offer valuable lessons.

In the language of ATD’s equity statement, TCUs “address structural inequities that are . . . the result of historic and systemic social injustices.” In fact, TCUs could be called equity-by-design institutions based on their location, the students they serve, their physical design, their approach to serving students, and cost. Only 17 percent of Native Americans have an associate’s degree or higher, although TCUs are working hard to address this. Like other colleges and universities in the U.S., their mission is to provide quality education to the students they serve and to serve their surrounding community. Unlike other institutions of higher education, however, TCUs have unique additional missions of cultural preservation and revitalization and tribal nation building.

TCUs are located in some of the poorest counties and serve one of the most historically underrepresented and poorest populations in the U.S. Approximately 85 percent of TCU students receive Pell Grants. The colleges and universities, which have existed since 1968 with the launch of Navajo Community College (now Diné College) in Arizona, are mostly found in rural areas on or near Indian reservations. They serve about 80 percent of Native American territory, providing, for many, the only access to higher education that allows students to remain in their communities. They are chartered by their own tribal governments with the exception of three, which are chartered by the Federal government. 

TCUs reflect and draw strength from the geographic and cultural context of the students they serve. They are designed with their Native American students in mind, physically, academically, and culturally. For example, building architecture and campus landscaping use cultural motifs. Native American symbols and images of Native American students are present everywhere. Traditional ceremonial or cultural events are held on campus. Staff and faculty, many of whom are Native American, have a shared cultural understanding with their students.

Every aspect of the TCU student experience validates the cultural heritage of the majority student population. The effect creates an inclusive and welcoming environment where the risk of stereotype threat is low and cultural and contextual understanding is high. In short, the majority of students can see part of themselves in the campus, thus affirming their identity, self-esteem and potentially their confidence to succeed.  

The culturally responsive curriculum and teaching methods used by many faculty at TCUs is shown to further reinforce the development of identity. TCUs incorporate curriculum and approaches appropriate to indigenous worldviews and values. For instance, all TCUs require their students to complete a Native American Cultural Studies course and/or a Native American language course, both of which serve to reinforce identity, cultural preservation and revitalization, and nation building. Curricula infuse Native American themes, values, and references to increase their relevance to students.

Finally, TCUs take a holistic approach to serving Native American students by serving the mind, body, and spirit in ways that consider both cultural and social factors. They are high-touch institutions by nature. Living those values often requires a monumental effort by TCU faculty and staff given their scarce resources and the extensive needs of many of their students. High poverty, intergenerational trauma, lack of encouragement at home to pursue education, lack of adequate preparation for college, and family responsibilities require an all hands-on-deck approach at TCUs to address students’ academic, social, and emotional learning issues. 

While TCUs approach the ideal in addressing many aspects of equity for their students, TCUs are deepening their equity journey with a number of supports from Achieving the Dream, by examining the persistence and performance of various subgroups attending their institutions. Deeper focus on their data is leading many to analyze and refine approaches, policies, practices, and behaviors to support their student goals. 

The cost of attending a TCU is lower than the cost of attending mainstream institutions of higher education in order to increase the community’s access. Most TCUs pay for student textbooks, thus reducing the overall student cost of attending college.

ATD’s equity statement mentions that “access to a high-quality education in an inclusive environment is the right of all individuals and imperative for the continued advancement of a strong democracy and workforce.” TCUs have intentionally designed a culturally and economically inclusive environment for Native American students so that each student comes much closer to receiving what they need to be successful. Without TCUs, many Native Americans would not be able to access higher education given the distance, cost and cultural differences of mainstream institutions. They offer a “place-based” solution to poverty grounded in local talents and concerns and led by local voices.

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