Defending tribal colleges: Administrators, students say low graduation rate due to unique challenges
By Ryan Johnson
Forum News Service
CASS LAKE — Seventy-one full-time students started at Leech Lake Tribal College in pursuit of a two-year degree in 2007.
Three years later, just 16 had earned a degree – giving the school a graduation rate of 22.5 percent, far below the 42.1 percent of students who graduated in the same time from Wahpeton’s North Dakota State College of Science.
But alumnus Lucas Bratvold, who graduated in May with an associate of arts degree after two years, said the college can’t force people to finish. He said it should instead be judged on the basis of what its graduates are doing now, whether it’s working for NASA or founding an Ojibwe language school.
"That’s where the success is, because maybe some people do drop out, but the ones who stick with it are doing great things," he said. "Maybe even those people that dropped out are doing great at something else."
Leech Lake Tribal College’s rate is "obviously way too low," and it also has a "terrible" retention rate, said President Don Day. But he said that’s not unique to his school, and federal data show it has the second-highest graduation rate of the eight tribal colleges in Minnesota and North Dakota.
No data was available for Red Lake Nation College, a satellite college of Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College located in Red Lake..
"You’ll find this all across the country," Day said. "If you ever go and talk to tribal college presidents or retention people at the 37 tribal colleges, one of their highest issues will be the retention and graduation rates."
The rate in the two states ranged from 7.4 percent at Cankdeska Cikana Community College in Fort Totten, N.D., to 52.6 percent at four-year institution Sitting Bull College in Fort Yates, N.D., according to National Center for Education Statistics data compiled by the Chronicle of Higher Education. Only three of the schools had a rate higher than 20 percent.
That measurement only tracks first-time, full-time, degree-seeking students and shows the percentage who completed a degree within 150 percent of normal time, or three years at a two-year school and six years at a four-year institution. It doesn’t reflect students who drop out and re-enroll, or if they complete a degree somewhere else.
Across the region, the graduation rate for 2010 was 50.6 percent at North Dakota State University, 42.4 percent at Minnesota State University Moorhead and 31.9 percent for the four campuses of Minnesota State Community and Technical College. The national average is 20.4 percent at two-year public colleges and 26.6 percent at four-year public schools.
Day said there are several reasons why tribal institutions often have lower rates, especially the history of how American Indians have been treated, and high rates of poverty, alcoholism and drug abuse.
Those issues, combined with the experience of being "labeled" and discriminated against, add up to a recipe for academic hardship, he said.
"Sometimes you wonder why any of them graduate."
Russell Swagger, vice president of student and campus services at the United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, said the tribal schools also have their own challenges.
United Tribes shares its federal funding with another college, getting money based on how many American Indian students it enrolls. Because of that, he said the college dealt with a $1.2 million budget cut a few years ago when enrollment dropped – something he said could be related to the recession, as well as the impact of the energy industry in western North Dakota. At the same time, the other school’s enrollment surged.
He said the energy boom also makes it hard to keep good instructors, who often can find higher pay working in the oil industry.
Still, Swagger said the college has maintained a graduation rate of about 25 percent. He said the school has educated several generations who return home to serve as leaders and business owners, helping those around them.
‘I know who I am’
Sitting Bull College has averaged a graduation rate of 20 percent over the past five years, said President Laurel Vermillion.
She said she knows firsthand how important tribal colleges are for the largely remote areas they serve. It gave her access to higher education after high school in 1973. Her parents didn’t finish eighth grade, so college was new for her family.
"I can tell you straight up that I would not have gone to college," she said. "It would have been too scary for me to go, and I would not have had this support."
Bratvold said he and his girlfriend, Veronica Kingbird, were drawn to Leech Lake Tribal College because of its strong reputation, and focus on the Anishinaabe culture and native language.
Kingbird said those teachings were always in her life, and her parents tried to keep her connected to her heritage. That part of her identity was missing from her K-12 education in the Bemidji public school system, she said.
Being immersed in the culture helped her and Bratvold build another "family" at the school, she said, and empowered them to graduate and serve as co-valedictorians in May.
"I think a lot of people succeed at tribal colleges because you learn about who you are, and that gives you extra strength and knowledge to conquer the world," Kingbird said. "That sounds kind of corny, but I’m not afraid anymore of anything. I know who I am."
Bratvold said his time at the college has made him "passionate" about education. He now hopes to continue his studies until he earns a doctorate, with one option being to serve as a tribal college president.
Leech Lake’s Day said the situation for American Indian students who want to attend college is "so much better now" than in the 1970s, when they were just starting to go to college in any significant number.
He said he still can remember his own experience decades ago when he told his high school guidance counselor that he wanted to go to college. He got a response he said many native people have heard over the years.
"He said, ‘Don’t even try. You have one chance in a million of making it,’ " Day said.
Henry James said conversations like that still happen, even at tribal institutions.
James is a former student at Turtle Mountain Community College in his hometown of Belcourt, N.D., who took two semesters there right after high school. He wasn’t ready and did poorly before dropping out.
Now 25, he re-enrolled there a few semesters ago to retake classes and get his GPA above a 2.0 so he could transfer to NDSU and pursue a degree in mechanical engineering. He plans to seek a master’s in chemical engineering at another university.
But James said a heavy course load caused him to fail one class during what he thought would be his final semester, and Turtle Mountain put him on academic suspension.
He appealed, arguing that his academic progress was evident and explaining to the president what he planned to do at NDSU.
"I was told that if I can’t pass a semester at TMCC, how am I supposed to pass a semester at NDSU?" James said.
James said that conversation made him "quite angry," but also motivated him to prove the president wrong. He took more courses, got his grades up and transferred this spring to NDSU, where he hopes to graduate in a few years.
Cynthia Lindquist, president of Cankdeska Cikana in Fort Totten, said the graduation rate is often a "difficulty" for tribal colleges that have small enrollments – just 220 students were enrolled there in 2010 – because small changes can be taken out of context.
"The other compounding factor is because we are tribal, typically reservation-based institutions serving native people, the profile of our students are much, much different," she said.
The average age of her students is 30, and the typical student is a single mother working a full-time job, Lindquist said. At NDSU, the average age is 21.
"I know the feds mean well, and it’s about affordability and all this, and I like to be able to compare when we talk about this stuff," she said. "But if people don’t understand the context, you say, ‘OK, according to (the Integrated Postsecondary Education System) and what the Chronicle reports on the IPEDS, that’s a 7 percent graduation rate.’ "
Lindquist said Cankdeska Cikana used to have an enrollment of less than 100. The school now averages 245 students each semester and graduates 35 to 45 students each year. She calculates the actual graduation rate is around 14 percent.
She said it’s important to look beyond the numbers.
"I have elders coming to take a class to learn how to do email because a grandson or granddaughter’s over in Afghanistan, or they want to learn how to Skype," she said. "That’s success. They’re not getting a degree; they’re not declaring a major. I measure my success differently."