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Shining a Spotlight on Tribal Colleges and Universities in the US

By Weiyan Xiong, author of Ethnic Minority-Serving Institutions

Longitudinal education data has shown that Native Americans are among the most underrepresented groups when it comes to higher education access in the US (Brayboy et al. 2012). From 1976 to 2016, less than one Native American enrolled in higher education among 100 enrolled students at all US colleges and universities. Regarding higher education attainment, from 1996 to 2009, around one-fifth of Native American students could graduate within four years of their first-time attendance at a four-year institution for a bachelor’s degree, much lower than the national average. From the academic year 1976-77 to 2014-15, among every 100 students who were rewarded the associate degree each year, there was only one Native American student, and less than one Native student was awarded bachelor or graduate degrees (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES] 2017).

Since the 1960s, Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) have played a significant role in offering Native Americans higher education opportunities (Brayboy et al. 2012; Crazybull 2009; Stull et al. 2015; Stein 2009). In the fall of 2016, TCUs enrolled 9.25 percent of Native American college students. Regarding the degree-granting of TCUs to Native Americans, from 1998 to 2015, around 13 percent of associate degrees received by Native Americans were awarded by TCUs. In 2015, more than three of 100 Native American graduates with a bachelor’s degree were from TCUs, while the number in 1999 was less than one person (NCES 2017). Also, most of the current 37 TCUs are community colleges (American Indian Higher Education Consortium 2020), which support Native American students in transferring to mainstream four-year institutions and the job market.

This data makes it evident that TCUs have plays a vital role in providing Native Americans with higher education opportunities and preparing them to pursue advanced degrees at mainstream public and private colleges and universities. In addition to the numbers, the interviews with TCU senior administrators and faculty members in my book reaffirm that TCUs also play significant roles in preserving Native American languages, cultures, and identities.

While TCUs enjoy some facilitating factors, including the favorable external environment (like the government-to-government relationship with the federal government) and their own characteristics and efforts (like their on-reservation locations), they also face many challenges, such as underfunding and the lack of qualified faculty members. However, many TCU interviewees viewed challenges as opportunities to grow. More importantly, each TCU has presented exemplary strategies and practices which demonstrate the potential of their contributions to the well-being of their students and communities.

For the future development of TCUs, first, they should strive to increase their visibility and promote their values to the broader US society and higher education community. More can be done to highlight the excellent work already accomplished in serving Native American students and communities and preserving indigenous languages, cultures, and identities. Second, TCUs should diversify and further improve their funding ability by strengthening their lobbying, fundraising, and grant-writing abilities. Third, TCUs should enhance their leadership and management capacity by establishing professional development programs and promoting more transparent and open communications in institutional management. Fourth, TCUs should maintain and grow their faculty teams by increasing faculty salaries and emphasizing faculty recruitment, cultivation, and retention efforts. Fifth, TCUs should maintain and expand their partnership base with mainstream higher education institutions. Meanwhile, they should also strengthen their relationships with each other by focusing on their roles in tribal nation building and needs-based community service and outreach. Finally, TCUs should improve the overall quality of the programs they offer by establishing best practices in accreditation and quality assurance that are evidence-based and conform to international standards and best practices.


American Indian Higher Education Consortium. 2020. TCU Roaster and Profiles. Washington, DC: AIHEC. Available online at: http://www.aihec.org/who-we-serve/TCUroster-profiles.htm

Brayboy, Bryan McKinley Jones, Amy J. Fann, Angelina E. Castagno, and Jessica A. Solyom. 2012. “Postsecondary Education for American Indian and Alaska Natives: Higher Education for Nation Building and Self-Determination.” ASHE Higher Education Report 37 (5): 1-154.

Crazybull, Cheryl. 2009. “Tribal Colleges and Universities: From Where We Are to Where We Might Go.” In Tradition and Culture in the Millennium: Tribal Colleges and Universities, edited by Linda Sue Warner and Gerald E. Gipp, 209-217. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publication, Inc.

National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). 2017. Digest of Education Statistics: 1999-2016. Washington, DC: NCES. Available online at: https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest

Stein, Wayne J. 2009. “Tribal Colleges and Universities: Supporting the Revitalization in Indian Country.” In Tradition and Culture in the Millennium: Tribal Colleges and Universities, edited by Linda Sue Warner and Gerald E. Gipp, 17-34. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publication, Inc.

Stull, Ginger, Demetrios Spyridakis, Marybeth Gasman, Andrés Castro Samayoa, and Yvette Booker. 2015. Redefining Success: How Tribal Colleges and Universities Build Nations, Strengthen Sovereignty, and Persevere through Challenges. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Center for Minority Serving Institutions. Available online at: http://repository.upenn.edu/gse_pubs/345

Weiyan Xiong is a Research Assistant Professor at Lingnan University, Hong Kong. He is also serving as the Program Director of the Master of Arts in International Higher Education and Management (IHEM). Xiong used to serve as a Program Coordinator at the University of Pittsburgh Institute for International Studies in Education. He also used to work as a Visiting Student Researcher at the UC Berkeley Myers Center for Research on Native American Issues, and a Research Assistant at the Center for International Higher Education of Peking University. His research interests include comparative and international education, indigenous education, liberal arts education, and faculty professional development.