Published January 13, 2018
BOULDER, COLORADO — The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education will soon launch a new consortium for colleges and universities that heavily serve Native American Indians and Alaska Natives, with support from a three-year grant from Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation.
This grant will help these Native-Serving Institutions (or NSIs) build networks, tailor strategies to this cohort’s distinctive needs, and speak with a strong and common voice on legislative and policy matters. These activities will be directed toward the broader goal of improving access to and success in higher education for the 5.2 million Americans who identify as American Indian or Alaska Native.
WICHE President Joe Garcia
“This initiative will give voice and power to a population that is tragically underserved, and to the colleges and universities on the front lines of student-achievement challenges,” says WICHE President Joe Garcia. “The network fits well within our mix of programs that increase access to affordable higher education, and we look forward to helping bring it to fruition in the coming years thanks to Lumina Foundation support.”
Native American Indian and Alaska Native populations—unlike Hispanics, African-Americans, and other minority groups—have never before had an association systematically serving their priorities at higher education institutions beyond the reservation. While such a group exists for tribal colleges, these colleges’ circumstances differ greatly from those of NSIs: tribal colleges are based on Indian reservations, are chartered by tribal governments, and have distinct mission facets aimed at preservation of tribal culture and language.
However, most Native American Indian and Alaska Native post-secondary students attend non-tribal institutions, off the reservation. At 26 such colleges and universities, they comprise at least 10 percent of the student body, thereby qualifying these schools as NSIs (10 NSIs are within the Western public institution cohort WICHE serves directly). Under the Title III program, which supports enrollment of under served student populations, the federal government makes grants to NSIs. But many obstacles remain in attracting, supporting, and graduating these student cohorts.
However, 90 percent of Native American Indian and Alaska Native postsecondary students pursue education off the reservation, at colleges and universities that serve all populations with broader missions. At the 26 schools defined as NSIs, at least 10 percent of the student population is Native, thereby qualifying these schools under a federal Title III program for institutions that enroll underserved student populations.
These schools face many obstacles in attracting, supporting, and graduating Native student cohorts. Not only does post-secondary attainment among Native American Indians and Alaska Natives lag that of the broader population by a large margin, they are falling further behind even as some minority student populations make positive strides. Fewer than 24 percent of Native students earn an associate’s degree or higher, barely half the rate of White students. Of Native students who do successfully reach college, just one-third graduate within six years; this rate drops below one-fifth when isolated to the public two-year school category that constitutes half of NSIs.
Native American Indians are unique among underrepresented minorities because their historic relationship with the federal government constitutes a trust responsibility, based on treaties made by the government to provide for the education and health of American Indians in exchange for vast quantities of land. As such, robust government support, policy, and programs in higher education play a key role in increasing success rates for these populations.
Native American higher education attainment is challenged not only by disproportionate poverty and geographic isolation, but also by tribal traditions and mores that warrant nuanced cultural approaches. These challenges occur at a time when Native American Indian and Alaska Native populations are increasing at 200 to 400 percent the rate (depending on measure) of the general population.
he project will be directed by Ken Pepion, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe who most recently served as associate vice president of academic affairs at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. The project commences in early 2018 with invitations to the nation’s 26 NSIs (Fort Lewis College is one), many of whom will be eligible for planning grants, and collaborate to define common NSI goals, metrics, and priorities that will inform further research, networking, and growth. This network will comprise the consortium representing NSIs and the 14,000 Native students they enroll across the U.S.
The consortium’s goals are aligned with Lumina Foundation’s Goal 2025, which aims to increase the proportion of Americans with high-quality postsecondary credentials to 60 percent by 2025.
“Lumina Foundation is committed to an equitable higher education system and to closing attainment gaps across race and ethnicity. This is an extraordinary opportunity to address the needs of Native American Indian and Alaska Native learners,” says Susan Johnson, director of organizational development and philanthropic practice. “WICHE’s emphasis on collaboration, its high-quality nonpartisan data research, and its long track record incubating programs that bolster higher education affordability and access—these things make WICHE an ideal forum for this important effort.”