The Tragedy of Tribal Colleges

Question: What Montana college spends more per degree awarded than the University of Chicago?  Answer: Stone Child College. $294,000 vs. $267,000.

Question: What Montana college spends nearly as much per degree as Massachusetts Institute of Technology? Answer: Chief Dull Knife College. $309,000 vs. $341,000.

Question: What Arizona college spends 47 percent more per degree than Harvard? Answer: Institute of American Indian Arts. $504,000 vs. $343,000.

Everyone knows a little about Chicago, MIT, and Harvard, but few know about the country’s tribal colleges. They are fairly new; Congress authorized and funded them in 1978; most of today’s thirty-five colleges got their start even more recently. The funds to run the colleges come overwhelmingly from federal taxpayers; state taxpayer funds and casino profits contribute a very small portion of total funding. (The spending-per-completion figures come from the College Completion table of the Chronicle of Higher Education, which has as its source the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.)

Enrollments at tribal colleges range from a few hundred to nearly 2,000. The schools emphasize cultural preservation and preparation for service in tribal government and social service agencies. Readying students for transfer to rigorous colleges and to compete in the global job market has a low priority.

These colleges not only have high costs per graduate, but also weak educational results. The reasons are complex, but they start with the fact that many reservations are places of despair with levels of alcoholism, drug use, suicide, out-of-wedlock childbearing, violence, and unemployment that would shock the average American. Despondency rules.

The hope behind these colleges is that heroic levels of spending on education can dissipate the despair. Governmental largess, however, makes dependency the norm, and that is true in the realm of education as well.

Crucially, tribal students at these colleges pay little or nothing. One faculty member told me, “If you’re Native American, it basically costs you nothing to come to college,” adding, “If you’re handed something, it means absolutely nothing.”

Graduation rates are low. When they do complete school, students receive certificates or degrees in a variety of subjects, including accounting, business, Indian arts, native language, nursing, customer service, office technology, and commercial driving. For example, in 2012, Oglala Lakota College awarded 178 credentials in 2012. Thirty-six of them were in Lakota studies, and thirty-seven in elementary or early childhood education. Twelve students earned degrees entitled Master of Arts in Lakota Leadership and Management.

The main emphasis is on training students to serve the medley of social programs on a reservation, including health, administration, tribal housing, addiction counseling, child-care, policing, and schools, and on preserving languages and arts. The needs of tribes determine the course offerings; the idea that an individual would advance himself or herself, probably leaving reservation boundaries and succeeding in the market economy, seems incidental, and possibly opposed to the program design.

The faculty member quoted above told me, “Most graduates go back to their village and their earnings are unchanged. We train and train. They’ll get a stack of certificates an inch-and-a-half thick but they never get a job. It’s all smoke and mirrors.”

Furthermore, the goals of tribal colleges, as given by their mission statements, give little weight to helping students increase their earnings or contribute to economic development. Instead, cultural transmission is primary. Comanche Nation College, for example, “recognizes the strength of the Comanche culture and language. Therefore they are the foundation for teaching and learning at Comanche Nation College.”

Similarly, Chief Dull Knife College aims “to provide Northern Cheyenne culturally influenced education through quality life-long learning opportunities.” It appears that the sole goal of Red Lake Nation College in Red Lake, Minnesota is to “preserve the Anishinaabe language and culture.”

Even cultural transmission efforts founder, though. An official at Little Bighorn College admitted that for all the money schools spend to teach native language, few students show interest. She said the only hope is for parents to tutor language at home, a solution that seems to have little chance of success because few parents do it. Even in her home, one child was receptive and the other not. And she is a champion; imagine how the efforts of less-inspired mothers falter.

For all the spending on indigenous language preservation in general, no one seems to have attempted to compare costs with results, according to Douglas H. Whalen, a linguist at Yale University and an advocate for protecting native languages. Tribal colleges’ hope of preserving languages is seemingly higher than of preparing students for the market economy; unsuccessful efforts scuttle this hope.

Another problem is that enrollment numbers are often inflated in order to create a positive impression for budget negotiations with Congress, and for self-congratulation. When I asked the faculty member, whose name and college I promised not to reveal, to confirm that the published number of enrolled students at his college was correct, he said, “No way. Administrators triple-count students. If a student has a plumbing course for five credits, a math course for one credit, and a prerequisite course for three credits, that counts as three students. As a faculty, we’ve always questioned administration’s enrollment numbers. It all comes down to justification.”

He also said, “Graduation numbers can be very misleading.” A student may concurrently get an associate degree and a certificate, taking classes that apply to both credentials. But that student’s awards would both be counted as degrees awarded.

That faculty member also questions the level of commitment of many students and professors. He traveled to tribal colleges in other states during a sabbatical and found that they exhibited the same problems of low attendance and of students failing to persist as at the college where he taught. One college cancelled classes the day he visited, apparently for lack of interest.

One might think a solution to this ineffective federal spending would be to identify Indian students who are really prepared for and interested in serious education and to help them get it at actual universities. This has already been tried. Indian students can attend many state universities at no cost. Some go; few make it through. Incentives to return to the subsidies and kin of the reservation dampen desires for educational advancement, with all the difficulty and effort it entails.

Spending on tribal colleges has proven to be a dubious investment. Tribal colleges should sink or swim on the educational value they provide, not on the ability of officials to wheedle money out of far-away politicians. Subsidizing tribal colleges may sound nice, but as they currently exist, those schools do more to perpetuate the problems facing Indians than to solve them.