Tribal Colleges: A Dubious Government Investment

June 12, 2013

Everyone knows a little about the University of Chicago, MIT and Harvard, but few know about the country's tribal colleges. They are fairly new -- Congress authorized and funded them in 1978, and most of today's 35 colleges got their start even more recently. Funds for the colleges come overwhelmingly from federal taxpayers; state taxpayer funds and casino profits contribute a very small portion of total funding, says Tom Burnett, a former member of the Montana House of Representatives.

Enrollments at tribal colleges range from a few hundred to nearly 2,000. The schools emphasize Native American cultural preservation, and preparation for service in tribal government and social service agencies.

  • Readying students for transfer to rigorous colleges and to compete in the global job market has a low priority.
  • These colleges not only have high costs per graduate, but also weak educational results.
  • The reasons are complex, but they start with the fact that many reservations are places of despair with levels of alcoholism, drug use, suicide, out-of-wedlock childbirth, violence and unemployment that would shock the average American.
  • Crucially, tribal students at these colleges pay little or nothing. One faculty member claimed, "If you're Native American, it basically costs you nothing to come to college."

Graduation rates are low. When they do complete school, students receive certificates or degrees in a variety of subjects, including accounting, business, Indian arts, native language, nursing, customer service, office technology and commercial driving. The main emphasis is on training students to serve the social services programs on a reservation. The needs of tribes determine the course offerings. The idea that an individual would advance himself or herself, probably leaving reservation boundaries and succeeding in the market economy, seems incidental, and possibly opposed to the program design.

Furthermore, the goals of tribal colleges, as given by their mission statements, focus on cultural transmission. Even cultural transmission efforts fail, though. An official at Little Bighorn College admitted that for all the money schools spend to teach native language, few students show interest. She said the only hope is for parents to tutor language at home, a solution that seems to have little chance of success because few parents do it.

Spending on tribal colleges has proven to be a dubious investment. Tribal colleges should sink or swim on the educational value they provide, not on the ability of officials to wheedle money out of far-away politicians.

Source: Tom Burnett, "The Tragedy of Tribal Colleges," Pope Center for Higher Education, June 9, 2013.

 

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