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Tribal Colleges Do More With Less


This spring we're joining our colleagues at Morning Edition to take a closer look at paying for college. We're talking about the challenge of getting through that higher education money maze. Today, we're looking at how Native Americans are facing this challenge, and it's a challenge for most Americans. But as a group, Native Americans have the highest poverty rate of any ethnic or racial group in this country.

And as a group, they are the least likely to attend and finish college. According to a report from the nonprofit Education Trust, just over half of Native American high school graduates go on to college, and only 39 percent of that group gets a bachelor's degree. That's compared to 74 percent of white students moving on to college, 62 percent of which graduate with a bachelor's. With us now are two guests who are focused on changing that number. Carrie Billy is the president and CEO of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.

That's an organization of the 37 tribal colleges and universities in this country. Also joining us, Anton Treuer. He is the executive director of the American Indian Resource Center at Bemidji State University in Minnesota. That's a school that serves a large number of Native American students. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

CARRIE BILLY: Thank you.

ANTON TREUER: Thank you for having me on.

MARTIN: The number of Native American students going to college, at least starting college is not small. I mean, it's a better number than it was. But the completion number is not as high as you want. So what do you think some of the factors are?

BILLY: I think it's, well, generational poverty, centuries of oppression, overcoming the barriers that are in place for American Indians. But until tribal colleges were established, which was beginning in the late 1960s, American Indians, by and large, didn't go to college at all. So the statistics are still low, but they're much better than they were because of tribal colleges, and they're growing every year.

MARTIN: What about just the whole question of tuition costs?

BILLY: Well, tribal colleges, like most community colleges, are very affordable. So you could go to a tribal college and get even a four-year degree for a little over $2,000 a year for tuition alone. So tuition is very low. But the tribal colleges actually forgive, on average, $100,000 of tuition payments each year because the students just can't even pay the tuition.

MARTIN: And how is that money paid up? Is it grant? Is it support from the federal government, or what is it?

BILLY: Well, in a lot of cases, it's not made up. We just have learned to do a lot more with a lot less.

MARTIN: Anton Treuer, why do you think the numbers are as they are? Is it - what do you think is the reason?

TREUER: You know, for native people, there's been incredible poverty since the start of the treaty period, and it continues to this day. At Bemidji State, for example, most of our native students are first-generation attending school, most have really significant financial obstacles, almost all of them have jobs and many of them have children.

So it's not just fresh out of high school, 18-year-olds matriculating to colleges and universities. A lot of our students are coming trying to maintain jobs and families sometimes, you know, 10, 20, 30, 40 miles from a campus.

MARTIN: Carrie Billy, looking at the tribal colleges and universities as a group, does that also tend to be true across the board?

BILLY: That's true, and it's changing a little. Now the majority of incoming students are coming directly from high school, which we see as very encouraging for Indian country that students are seeing the value in going directly from high school into college. But most of our students work. Most have children. And still, like most community colleges, the average age is a little older.

MARTIN: What are some of the initiatives that you have at Bemidji State to try to address the concerns of this particular population?

TREUER: Yeah, it's kind of heartbreaking when you realize that you've got a student with a full tuition scholarship that's living in a car. And that does happen sometimes. So we had all kinds of issues here where, well, for example, most federal financial aid protocol and state ones start dispersing financial aid about week five of a semester. And for a lot of our native students, that's when they started to buy their books.

And it can cause a tremendous barrier. So now we've actually got an internal protocol where people of all races can actually directly charge their books at the bookstore and have them debit out of the financial aid. But we've constantly had to be attentive to, you know, many different dimensions of the financial picture.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are continuing our series on paying for college. Today, we're focusing on the particular challenges and opportunities facing Native American students. Our guests are Carrie Billy of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium and Anton Treuer of the American Indian Resource Center at Bemidji State University.

Many students of low-income are eligible for specific financial aid, but many people find the forms themselves intimidating. Has that been your experience at your institution, too? And are there specific efforts to help people just navigate the paperwork?

TREUER: Yes. The process can be really complex and intimidating, and it requires a pretty significant level of technological engagement. For example, the FASFA, which is the federal financial aid, it's entirely electronic now. And a lot of times a student is first-generation in college and doesn't have Internet at home. And they prompt people for copies of their parents' 1040s. And then when they talk to their parents, sometimes their parents are like, what's a 1040? And it makes it really difficult and frustrating to jump through all of the hoops. So Bemidji State, for example, we bring in students.

You know, we help them get an email address, you know, more hand-holding for applying and follow-up with forms. It really does take a lot of work, and it's a pretty significant investment when you're not even sure if the student's going to matriculate to your institution. But in the end, we have to make it because it's the right thing to do.

MARTIN: It's interesting that we're talking about this at a time when some people are even questioning the value of a college education. And I just wonder if those debates are also percolating in Indian Country, and how do you answer that question?

BILLY: Well, tribal colleges are a little different from other institutions of higher education because really at the core of our schools is culture and language and land. So when you go to a tribal college, you don't just go to become a nurse or an elementary education teacher. That's very important.

But you also come to be accountable to your community, particularly in communities that are oppressed where there's high poverty rates, high suicide rates. You're just a value of the self-esteem that you get by going to an institution of higher education and understanding what you're worth and what you can contribute and what you should contribute and then going on to get a four-year degree. I mean, that's irreplaceable for our people.

MARTIN: Each of you has been doing this work for quite some time trying to increase opportunities, access and completion. Carrie Billy, do you want to start? What do you think has made the biggest difference over the course of time that you've been doing this work, and what would continue to make a big difference?

BILLY: Probably the biggest difference is resources. I mean, we have tribal colleges that started in old barns originally, barns that leaked, and old fish-canning factories. Those aren't the best places to go to school and feel really good about yourself. So having the resources to have a nice institution that students feel proud about that they can engage in, have the faculty that they need and the resources - the labs, the computer labs, the science labs.

I went to schools on reservations most of my life, never saw an American Indian teacher. You go to a tribal college, about half of the faculty are American Indians. That makes such a huge difference when you go to school and see people like you.

MARTIN: Anton Treuer, what do you think has made the biggest difference in the time that you've been doing this work, and what do you think would make the biggest difference going forward?

TREUER: To me, it's pretty clear that two of the biggest barriers to success and education for our native students are number one, financial and number two, one of cultural disassociation. Native people have had a really ugly history in education where education was first thrust upon native people as a means to assimilate them forcibly and take away their language and culture. So having a really holistic approach to addressing the financial needs of students so that they can go to school, and then creating an environment that is really warm and welcoming to their language and culture is critical.

Because ultimately, the whole point of success and education is going to be to deliver the goods for success with everything else. To me, providing opportunities for native students and everybody else to be successful in education is not just an issue of, you know, affirmative action or equal opportunity in education. It's really one of fundamental equality and human rights.

MARTIN: Anton Treuer is executive director of the American Indian Resource Center at Bemidji State University in Minnesota. He joined us KNBJ in Minnesota. Carrie Billy is the president and CEO of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium. She was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

TREUER: Thank you.

BILLY: Thank you.

MARTIN: And just a reminder, you can weigh in with your own story or question on Twitter at hashtag #PayingforCollege. We'd love to hear from you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.