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FORT YATES, North Dakota — Breanne Lugar says the only reason she enrolled in college was so she could move away from the house she shared on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation with her parents, her boyfriend, and her five children.

“I never wanted to come to school,” says Lugar, 26, who signed up at Sitting Bull College, one of the nation’s tribal colleges and universities located on Indian reservations and run entirely by tribes. “I hated school.”

But after a semester of classes toward a degree in business administration helped her move from a job as blackjack dealer to the finance department of the tribal casino, Lugar, a sophomore, has become a fervent advocate of the college.

She and other Native Americans say the best way for their tribes to solve their problems, including poverty and high rates of drug use and suicide, is through higher education. On Standing Rock, one of the nation’s poorest reservations, 43 percent of people lived in poverty in 2012, according to Census figures — three times the national average — while only 15 percent had bachelor’s degrees, compared to more than 30 percent of all Americans.

Tribal colleges
Students in Oglala Lakota’s automotive program work on a car in the first week of classes. Administrators say there aren’t enough jobs at area mechanics to go around after graduation. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

There are 32 accredited tribal colleges and at least five non-accredited schools offering associate, bachelor’s and even some master’s degrees. Tribal college advocates say that the schools give opportunities to students in sprawling geographically isolated Native communities and that their mission is broader than producing degrees. Many offer language classes to all those living on reservations to help prevent Native languages from going extinct; they also work with local businesses, and attempt to address social problems on the reservation.

But in spite of getting more than $100 million a year in federal funding — including grants low-income students use to pay tuition — tribal colleges often have abysmal success rates. The average percentage of students who earn four-year degrees in even six years, and two-year degrees in three at these schools, is only 20 percent, according to a Hechinger Report analysis of federal graduation data — one third the national average and half the rate of Native students at non-tribal schools. These statistics only include first-time, full-time students, but at some tribal colleges, fewer than one in 10 of them ever finishes.

“There’s not a lot of value for the student or for the tribes or the economies where they are,” says Tom Burnett, a former Montana state senator who has been critical of tribal colleges.

“There’s not a lot of value for the student or for the tribes.” Former Montana State Senator Tom Burnett

The schools, which largely allow anyone to attend, say their poor outcomes are in large part due to the many shortcomings with which their students arrive, including poor preparation in primary and secondary schools. Less than 70% of Native students graduate from high school, according to research by the U.S. Department of Education.

“The dilemma that we’re facing is we’re open admissions,” said Thomas Shortbull, president of Oglala Lakota College on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. “We do have a major problem with our students’ [preparedness].”

College accountability advocates are sympathetic to this argument — but only to a point.

“You can’t just say, ‘That college has opened its doors wide and it has a low graduation rate, therefore it’s terrible,” says Mark Schneider, vice president of the American Institutes for Research. “On the other hand, you can’t just say, ‘What do you expect?’”

Related: Can universities be embarrassed into raising graduation rates?

Schneider and others argue that taxpayers spending tens of millions on tribal colleges and universities deserve to get more for their money.

“In higher education the federal government has essentially had a hands-off approach to their federal investment,” says Mary Nguyen Barry, a policy analyst at Education Reform Now and co-author of Tough Love: Bottom-Line Quality Standards for Colleges, who says the government should try to help low-performing schools improve their graduation rates. If they can’t, says Barry, they should be cut off.

Tribal colleges
Anti-drug signs line the main road of Kyle, South Dakota. Tribal college administrators say that education could ultimately help problems on the reservation, like drug and alcohol abuse. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

Struggling tribal schools would likely welcome extra support. Congress sets tribal college funding and is authorized by federal law to give a maximum of $8,000 per student. But the schools get $5,850 per student on average. And that can be used only for Native American students, even though nearly a fifth of enrollment is non-Native. Howard University, a historically black college, by comparison, averages more than $20,000 per student from the federal government.

“We want to see that the federal government is supporting our tribal colleges and universities as they are supporting any other minority-serving institution or state institution,” says Victoria Vasques, former director of the White House Initiative on Tribal Colleges under President George W. Bush.

But Burnett says the better way of calculating this is by looking at the cost per degree awarded, not the cost per enrolled student. The tribal Institute of American Indian Arts in New Mexico spends $504,000 for every degree it confers, for instance, he says — more than Harvard University or MIT. Officials at the school, when contacted, would not comment about these costs.

In 2011, President Barack Obama signed an executive order creating the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education, which has supported programs to teach Native languages, including those at tribal colleges, and focused on informing tribal college administrators of grant opportunities. At June speech at Standing Rock, Obama spoke the need for the federal government to support economic and education development on reservations.

Related: Colleges let taxpayers help poor students while they go after rich, report says

Treaties between Indian tribes and the United States require the federal government to pay for education on reservations. Originally, this was taken to mean K-12 schools. That assumption was questioned in the 1960s, says Shortbull. He graduated then and was one of 20 students from his class to go on to the University of South Dakota. Four years later, he said, only two of them had earned degrees.

“Our elders on the reservation said that this was unacceptable,” he says. “Why couldn’t we create a college to educate our own people?”

By 1975, elders from tribes around the country had made that case to Congress and the first tribal colleges began to open. Today, they collectively enroll nearly a tenth of Native Americans who attend colleges and universities nationwide.

At Shortbull’s college, the most popular degrees offered are nursing and elementary education, two of the biggest careers in Pine Ridge. Nearly two-thirds of nurses on the reservation are graduates of Oglala Lakota, and about 45 percent of the teachers, Shortbull says.

But many students struggle to make it past their first year. Two-thirds arrive at Oglala Lakota needing at least one remedial class in math or English to make up for material they should have learned in primary and secondary school, but didn’t. Of those, two-thirds never get any further. In 2012, only 12 percent of Oglala Lakota students graduated after six years, according to federal data.

Part of the problem is that there aren’t many jobs on reservations, meaning even college graduates can easily be unemployed, says Stephanie Sorbel, who manages the college’s campus center in Kyle, one of the reservation’s largest towns, which has nearly 3,000 people. Anti-drug and alcohol messages painted on plywood flank the main road into Kyle, and suicide-prevention notices hang outside every room of the Oglala Lakota center.

From the parking lot, Sorbel can point to nearly all of Kyle’s employment opportunities. There are a few jobs at the health clinic up the road and at the day-care center on the campus that require a college education. Tanka, a buffalo meat snack company, is headquartered in Kyle, but openings there are rare. There is one sign of growth, though: Some Oglala Lakota grads just opened a movie theater.

Related: Getting kids into college is one thing. Getting them through is another

Despite his school’s low success rate, Shortbull says, its existence is vital. “Without tribal colleges, who would try to help these people?”

Like Lugar, many Native American students choose tribal colleges because they’re more convenient than other higher-education institutions and they feel more comfortable staying on the reservation.

“History tells us that if we didn’t have the colleges here many of our students would go off [the reservation] and they wouldn’t do well,” Sitting Bull College President Laurel Vermillion said, adding that the majority of her students transfer there from an off-the-reservation school.

But Burnett argues that attending low-performing schools won’t help students. “Going back to a safe harbor that leads you nowhere is no solution.”

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  1. Had I known about this story, I may have had the opportunity to contribute. As an external evaluator at times, I can appreciate the analysis by the independent news site. I was fortunate enough to lead the education division at Sinte Gleska University on the Rosebud Sioux reservation during the 80’s to be the first tribal college to have both the undergraduate (BS Ed) and graduate degrees (M.Ed) in education to be certified by the state and the Higher Learning Commission of NCA, Chicago, IL. Many of the tribal colleges probably do not know we paved the way, so that they too might be accredited at that level. We produced a number of educators/administrators who were positive role models for Lakota children and some are still in the field today. I can’t say I wasn’t recognized for my work as I did receive an alumni award from Harvard in ’06 in part for that successful work on my home reservation.

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