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Graduation Rates Lag at Tribal Colleges

Only 20 percent of students at tribal colleges earn four-year degrees in six years, even though higher education is often seen as critical for Native Americans to advance, according to an article by The Hechinger Report.

Nationwide, there are 32 accredited tribal colleges and at least five non-accredited tribal schools, which receive more than $100 million total each year in federal funding. The schools, which are run by tribes on tribal land, aim to provide degrees as well as an education on Native language and culture. They also tend to have open admissions policies, which some tribal educators say contributes to a high number of students who arrive at college severely underprepared. 

Some educators interviewed in the article attribute the poor results of tribal colleges to the lack of employment opportunities on reservations, as well as inadequate preparation that students receive at tribal k-12 schools, which are run by the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE). In 2011, 4th grade students in BIE schools performed lower on the National Assessment of Educational Progress than American Indian students in non-BIE schools. During the 2011-12 school year, the graduation rate at BIE schools was only 53 percent, compared to the national average of 80 percent.

President Obama recently pledged to offer more academic and social support to Indian students, and in 2013, Education Week produced an in-depth report on the academic performance of Indian students, noting that while other minority groups have seen their achievement rise in recent years, test scores and graduation rates for Indian students has stagnated.

Indian students also tend to have low college completion rates at non-tribal colleges. Only 40 percent of Native students earn a four-year degree in six years at non-tribal schools, compared to the national rate of about 60 percent.

Officials at some tribal colleges told The Hechinger Report that if it weren't for tribal colleges, there would be few options for American Indian students. Many American Indian students face financial burdens and culture shock in college, along with poor academic preparation. "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," said Sitting Bull College President Laurel Vermillion.

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