Tribal colleges stay strong but face challenges

Arizona's Diné College is marketing its lower price compared to other state higher education institutions to attract students. (Photo: Diné College)

Tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) are vital to the communities they serve. Campuses don’t only offer college courses, but also serve as gathering places for the community. Many – 31 out of 35 accredited TCUs – serve as community libraries. Students can gain skills for the workforce, and they can learn about and preserve their culture, history and language.

“Tribal colleges impact every aspect of their community, and vice versa,” said Carrie Billy, president and CEO of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC).

And they do it with limited resources.

This makes tribal colleges particularly vulnerable during the coronavirus pandemic “because of both the challenging environment in which they currently engage their education, and because they are, like many people with limited resources, traumatized by the situation,” said Cheryl Crazy Bull, president and CEO of the American Indian College Fund.

Students, staff and faculty at these colleges have a lot on their minds as they deal with the upheaval caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Internet access is limited while the need to get online for courses is burgeoning. Student parents are helping their children with schoolwork while balancing their own courses. Many students have lost jobs as tribes have had to lay off employees.

A survey by the College Fund of scholarship recipients found that one in 10 felt at risk of leaving school. Since March, it’s increased to one in five.

And there’s concern for the elders in their communities, who may be hit hardest by COVID-19.

“If we lose them, we’ve lost a language and a whole culture,” Billy said.

At Ilisagvik College, located at the northernmost point of Alaksa, the challenge has been “the unknown of what this virus was all about and the impact it would have on the community given various closures, and the hunker-down mandates,” said President Pearl Kiyawn Nageak Brower. “We live in communities on the North Slope that are just accessible by air, so the change in airline capacity and schedule also was a challenge.”  

Despite the challenges and worries, tribal college faculty and staff are working hard to continue to carry out their mission to preserve and revitalize their cultures. 

Student supports

In 2019, approximately 1,050 students from seven TCUs responded to a survey by the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice. Sixty-two percent of respondents were food insecure in the prior 30 days, and 69 percent were housing insecure in the previous year. Thirty percent were homeless in the previous year. Those figures are substantially higher than rates reported at other institutions, according to the Hope Center.

“Because people live in crowded housing conditions, have limited access to food and transportation, and to health services, the pandemic has re-traumatized many tribal citizens, as well as exacerbated challenging socio-economic conditions with the rural non-native population living on or near reservations,” Crazy Bull said.

Like other colleges and universities, many TCUs have started emergency funds to help students, and the College Fund has provided emergency aid for students and for faculty development thanks to donor support. Funding from the CARES Act also has helped – in the short-term, at least. According to Billy, most TCUs plan to use 90 percent of that funding for student aid.

Ilisagvik College has supported employees with a COVID Relief stipend to help with costs associated with the pandemic, including internet fees. 

“We also are glad we have been able to continue paying all employees which, in the long run, helps our community,” Brower said.

Many colleges with student housing, such as Diné College in Arizona, have allowed students to continue to live in the residence halls.

“The primary challenge Diné College has faced during the pandemic is making certain that everybody follows proper protocol, especially when it comes to health,” said George Joe, the college’s director of marketing and communications. “We have students who are from out of state and some live in our dorms, so safety is a priority as it relates to single student and family housing.” 

Infrastructure challenges

Technology and the swift change to course delivery is a major hurdle. Several tribal colleges had no online learning, Billy said.

“They’re place-based institutions. Online learning didn’t make a lot of sense,” she explained, adding that many students also don’t have internet access at home.

In fact, 68 percent of Americans on rural tribal lands lack access to fixed broadband, according to a 2016 FCC Broadband Progress Report.

Because of its location, Ilisagvik College offers all of its academic classes at a distance to support students who are in village communities surrounding Barrow, but some students still attend in person. Still, converting to all remote learning what a challenge, from adjusting course instructions to ensure students have access to the internet, which is expensive in remote areas, Brower said.

“Adding to the fact that K-12 schools closed, too, and people were working from home — that is a lot of internet usage in one household, when minimal service can cost over $300/month,” she said.   

Oklahoma’s College of the Muscogee Nation (CMN) wasn’t as familiar with online course delivery. In fact, many students expressed that they preferred in-class learning, said CMN President Robert Bible.

There was also an access issue. A survey conducted before spring break revealed that approximately 30 percent of students did not have the internet access they needed for classes. The college worked quickly to form a plan to better serve those students.

“Overall, teamwork and communication between staff and students have been a critical factor in quickly adapting to the situation,” Bible said.

Faculty has tapped all modes of communication to connect with students, using email, phone, text and social media messages, he said. Instructors also have held weekly video meetings to discuss what works and what doesn’t to adjust teaching methods.

A Diné College student picks up equipment to help him connect to the internet at home. (Photo: Diné College)

The challenges are similar at Diné College.

“For students, this online format was most challenging because many students lack computers, internet and cell phones,” Provost Geraldine Garrity said. “The Navajo Nation is a remote area and many students come from remote locations across the Navajo Nation. It has taken two weeks to reach out to all the students and responses are still trickling in.”

Shelly Begay, a 56-year-old mother of four and grandmother of two, is pursuing a degree in public health. She has continued her coursework thanks to a loaner laptop from Diné.

“I’m not that good with computers, but I’m learning,” said Begay, who drives to the campus parking lot for a wifi connection. “My daughter helps me a lot with what I don’t know. I’m very thankful that I’m getting help.”

Begay is typical of how students have been flexible during this time.

“We’ve observed incredible resiliency at tribal colleges and among their students – there was rapid adaptation to online learning and quick realization of the inadequacies of broadband access and infrastructure and of available technologies such as laptops for faculty and students,” said the College Fund’s Crazy Bull.

Getting creative

Some courses don’t translate so well to online instruction. All U.S. community colleges are struggling with career and technical education courses, tribal colleges included.

“The biggest worry is students getting off track for their certificate programs,” Billy said. “They don’t want to cause delays. They need to get back to work and complete their schedule.”

Tribal colleges with nursing and teacher preparation programs train most of the nurses and teachers in their regions or on their reservation, Billy said.

“Colleges are trying to figure out ways to keep those programs moving forward,” she said.

Oklahoma’s College of the Muscogee Nation celebrates Native American Heritage Month in November. (Photo: CMN)

Also of concern: language and culture courses.

At CMN, “face-to-face learning facilitates the cultural context of our curriculum that is our mission to emphasize native values,” Bible said.

“We continue to perpetuate our native language by speaking it to each other, whether on the phone, through video conference and emails,” he added. “While the ideal teaching and learning environment is face to face for language, we are able to use written lessons and recordings.”

Most of the Navajo language, history and culture faculty members at Diné College have gotten creative to work around the issue. Although a few language and culture instructors initially worried that the shift to remote instruction would “commercialize the teachings,” some faculty members have adapted by producing video lectures and working with the online format with limited Navajo fonts and redesigning the curriculum, according to Garrity.

Some colleges also are going old-school with their methods, Billy said, by providing packets with print-outs of reading materials and worksheets. Students return packets by putting them in the college’s library book drop or mailing them to the college.

Gauging enrollment

So far, the number of dropouts is lower than anticipated, Billy said, though she anticipates an enrollment decline for the summer semester.

From a financial perspective, decreased enrollment is concerning because it means a loss of operational support.

“But, most importantly, (TCUs) are concerned because it means progress that has been made toward a more educated population could be deterred,” Crazy Bull said.

Ilisagvik College will stick with remote education through the summer, but it may allow some short-term workforce education courses to meet face-to-face in July, if it’s safe to do so, Brower said.

Alaska’s Ilisagvik College partly relies on its summer camps to bring residents, and potentially new students, to its campus. (Photo: Ilisagvik College)

The college also has canceled its overnight summer camps, which serve “as a bridge for students to encourage them to attend college, and in particular attend Ilisagvik,” Brower said. Usually, nearly 150 students visit the campus, and then the college connects with 100 or more students in their communities over the summer. 

“This is a big number of prospective students who we won’t be connecting with this summer for future enrollment,” said Brower, who added that she hopes to offer day camps and maybe virtual camps in July, depending on the course of the pandemic. 

In Arizona, Diné College expects a decrease in fall enrollment, but it is at work marketing to current students as well as potential new students, Joe said. That includes touting that it has one of the lowest tuitions of state colleges and universities.

“There is a plan to offer a diversified selection of courses at all levels,” he said. “The college has a strong regional attraction and we believe that component will be here for the long haul.”

College of the Muscogee Nation expects a decrease in enrollment for the summer, but Bible remains optimistic about the fall.

“Our enrollment will continue to prosper because our citizens know the importance of our culture and education,” he said.

Concerns, optimism for the future

Although the immediate future is uncertain, eventually campuses will reopen to students. Because many tribal colleges are in rural areas, they may even be some of the first to reopen, Billy noted.

CMN is taking precautions to ensure that the safety and health of students, staff and faculty remains a priority.

“It is important to assure our community that we are taking the appropriate measures to keep our campus community safe,” Bible said. “We communicate with our tribal leaders for guidance regarding the pandemic and when the appropriate time is to open our campus.”

There are funding concerns, as well. Tribal colleges write off a lot of tuition loss each year, and “we anticipate colleges will be writing off more tuition,” Billy said. Also, TCUs get about $30 million a year from tribal governments. Some colleges already have been told that funding may be cut by half or even totally.

But, to date, no tribal colleges have furloughed employees, Billy noted.

In terms of teaching, there also have been positives: “I have had some presidents say that the experience of training faculty and moving to online has been good for them,” Billy said. “If we can figure out native language class delivery, it could be good for Indian country.”

“Tribal colleges have always been underfunded and underresourced. That has equipped them to be frugal and to be responsive to crisis,” added Crazy Bull.

In fact, tribal institutions were started with basically no funding in basements, old gyms and dated federal buildings.

“Tribal colleges are used to persevering,” Billy said.

About the Author

Tabitha Whissemore
is a contributor to Community College Daily and managing editor of AACC's Community College Journal.