Native American and Alaska Native students – who have the lowest college enrollment rate of any racial group, according to recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics – face many barriers when they are looking to get a degree. Affordability.

Of those who identified as American Indian and Alaska Native in 2018, 25.4% lived in poverty, the highest of any population, according to US Census data. The median annual household income from 2015 to 2019 was $43,825 for Native American and Alaska Native households, below all other group averages except black households.

Meanwhile, the average in-state tuition price at a publicly ranked college was $10,388 in 2021-22, while private school tuition that year averaged $38,185. , according to data from the US News rankings.

Since many indigenous students live in rural areas, they often face transportation issues and lack reliable broadband. In 2018, about 60% of people in tribal lands had fixed broadband internet access, compared to 65% of Americans in rural areas and 97% of Americans in urban areas, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

Tribal Colleges and Universities, also known as TCUs, the first of which was established in 1968, aim to give Indigenous students the opportunity to earn a degree close to home at low cost and create economic opportunities in reserves.

What is a Tribal College or University?

These public institutions of higher learning are mapped to federally or federally recognized Indian tribes, with a majority of Native American or Alaska Native students.

“One of the benefits of tribal colleges is that you get a culturally balanced education and can go through a debt-free program,” says Carrie Billy, president and CEO of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.

Although designed to meet the needs of Indigenous and local reservation students, the majority of TCUs are open to all students. The student population enrolled at TCUs — just over 15,200 in 2020 — was 79.1% American Indian or Alaska Native, 14.6% White, and nearly 2 % of Hispanics, according to NCES data. Black and Asian students each made up less than 1% of the student population.

How many tribal colleges and universities are there?

AIHEC recognizes 35 accredited tribal colleges and universities, which are funded by the federal Tribal-Controlled Colleges and Universities Assistance Act of 1978, in 14 states. Many TCUs are two-year institutions, but there is a mix of schools, including some technical colleges, that offer certificates, associate’s degrees, bachelor’s degrees, and master’s degrees.

According to the American Indian College Fund, a nonprofit that provides scholarships to Native students, Montana is home to the most TCUs — seven — followed by North Dakota with five. Most are located in the Southwest and Plains regions, while states like Alaska, Idaho, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Washington only have one TCU each. There is no TCU on the East Coast.

Why attend a tribal college or university?

Finding a sense of belonging on college campuses can be difficult for Indigenous students because they often don’t see themselves represented in the curriculum or faculty of non-TCU institutions, says Cheryl Crazy Bull, President and CEO from the American Indian College Fund.

People who identified as American Indian or Alaska Native made up 1% or less of full-time faculty members at non-TCU institutions in 2020, according to recent NCES data. But 30% to 40% of TCU faculty are indigenous and from local communities, says Crazy Bull.

TCU curricula are based on the culture, traditions, spirituality and languages ​​of the charterer tribe.

“The educational experience is taught from a tribal worldview that resonates with the student,” says Billy. “Courses are relevant to the student, to their community, to nation building, to strengthening their tribe and themselves as individuals, community members, tribe members and family members .”

At the College of Menominee Nation in Wisconsin, for example, courses cover topics such as Native American cultures, the Menominee language, minority women in Native literature and film.

Elmer Guy, president of the Navajo Technical University in New Mexico, said many leaders of Indian Nations “fear that we are losing language and culture.” So Navajo Tech offers a degree in Diné Language, Culture, and Leadership.

“We prepare professionals so that they can teach the language or the culture in schools”, explains Guy. “And we’re trying to create an opportunity where language and culture matters and you can make a living from having that knowledge.”

Many TCUs offer comprehensive services such as tutoring, service learning, childcare, pantries, and financial aid to help ease the transition from high school to college. Other support services are based on cultural activities, ceremonies and spirituality, says Billy.

“A tribal student told me, ‘We start each week with a drum and end each week with a pipe,'” Billy adds. “It’s something you just don’t see in a regular college – the support of your identity as an Indigenous person.”

Since affordability is a major barrier to a college education for many Indigenous students – 87% qualified for financial aid in 2015-2016, with average grants received of $10,750, according to recent NCES data – TCUs usually offer cheaper tuition. The average cost of tuition and fees in 2021-22 at a TCU was $3,744, according to AIHEC.

“They really try to price their tuition at a level students can afford so they can take and complete a program that will lead to employment,” Billy says.

Some TCUs, like Diné College in Arizona, have begun offering tuition discounts due to the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic — even as TCUs face chronic underfunding issues. Returning full-time students in good standing, meaning maintaining at least a 2.0 GPA, received free tuition in Spring 2022. First-time full-time students were eligible for 50% discounts on tuition and residential housing in fall 2021.

A number of scholarships are also available through TCUs and local nonprofit organizations.

“A lot of students are first-generation, and they don’t necessarily understand what it takes to apply for financial aid or apply for scholarships,” says Crazy Bull. She recommends students refer to the College Fund website, which has a running list of available scholarships and tips on how to apply.

Since most TCUs are on or near reservation lands, many students do not have to travel far to graduate. Proximity also enables partnerships between local communities and TCUs.

“We work to improve the economy of Indian communities and try to create jobs to help generate income,” says Guy.

To find information about each TCU and the best fit, students can visit AIHEC or the College Fund online.

“The students who attend them and TCU itself are very diverse,” says Crazy Bull. “While the focus is often on a place-based Indigenous education experience, the diversity of students in this setting is really good.”