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Thriving tribal colleges are good news for mainstream schools
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Bemidji State University officials are hoping their new American Indian Resource Center will attract more Indian students. BSU has struggled to recruit and retain Indian students. But Indian enrollment is up this year, thanks in part to the popularity of tribal colleges. (Photo courtesy Bemidji State University)
American Indians have the lowest level of educational attainment of any ethnic group in the country. But a growing movement to establish tribal colleges is having an impact. Just three decades ago, there wasn't a single tribal college in the country. Today there are 35, and the number is growing. While mainstream universities have struggled to attract and retain Indian students, tribal colleges are succeeding. In northern Minnesota, tribal colleges have become cornerstones of reservation life. Larger universities are now hoping to attract tribal college graduates.

Bemidji, Minn. — On the Bemidji State University campus, Indian students are celebrating the grand opening of the university's new American Indian Resource Center. It's a $2.6 million facility housing BSU's Indian studies program. It's also a place where Indian students can study and socialize.

BSU is surrounded by Minnesota's three largest Indian reservations. But the school has struggled to attract and retain Indian students. Enrollment peaked in the 1970s at around 300 students. It's since dropped to half that.

Jerome Frazier is a senior at BSU. He'll be the first in his family to get a college degree. Frazier says he's pleased with the new Indian Resource Center. But he says colleges need to do more.

"They want to create an atmosphere so that we can succeed," Frazier said. "They really do. They have a good heart. But they need a lot of work."

Frazier says some college professors are insensitive to Indian culture and viewpoints. He says many Indian students are offended by biases that still exist in academia.

"You look at history books, and just the way dominant society views Native Americans in this country," he said. "You talk about a massacre when it was a battle, when the Native Americans won. Or it was a battle when the white soldiers slaughtered Native Americans. So you have perceptions already institutionalized, socialized, at an early age."

Most of our students tell us that if this college wasn't here, they would not be in college at all.
- Leah Carpenter

Despite some dissatisfaction, Indian enrollment at Bemidji State University is growing. This year there are 175 Indians students. That's a 30 percent increase over last year. The goal is to increase enrollment to 500 within five years.

Lee Cook is director of the American Indian Resource Center. Cook says one reason for the upswing is that a growing number of tribal college graduates are coming to BSU. Cook says graduates of two-year tribal college programs are better prepared for success. BSU and other universities see tribal colleges as new sources for students. They're stepping up recruitment efforts. They're forming agreements with tribal colleges so that credits will easily transfer.

"The tribal colleges really provide that kind of beginning learning experience, that kind of beginning exploration area," said Cook. "They get prepared, they get motivated, they learn how to study, they learn how to manage their time. And the Indian students we get here, whether they're traditional or non traditional, come here, without a doubt these days, with the intent of getting a bachelor's degree."

At the tribal college on the Leech Lake Reservation, class sizes are small by design. Most of the students in the class are women. Acting college president Leah Carpenter says that's not unusual.

"Our typical student here is a single mother, probably in her 30s, you know, trying to make a way for herself and her family, basically," Carpenter said. "Most of our students tell us that if this college wasn't here, they would not be in college at all."

The Leech Lake Tribal College started in 1990. It offered limited classes to just a handful of students. This year, there are more than 330 students. They can chose from a wide range of two-year programs. The most popular include studies in business, nutrition, early childhood education and law enforcement. Students are required to take Ojibwe language and history classes. Most of the teachers are American Indian.

Many Indian student are reluctant to go to mainstream colleges. They're often academically ill-prepared. Carpenter says tribal colleges give them a safe place to learn. Students are closer to their homes and families. They're surrounded by friends. And they're encouraged to embrace their culture. Carpenter says tribal colleges are changing the way Indian communities view higher education.

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Image Leah Carpenter

"So many of our students have gotten left by the wayside, you know, didn't get the preparation they needed, dropped out of school, you know, they didn't get the retention efforts that they needed to even stay in school and complete high school," said Carpenter. "I think the tribal college movement is a response to that, and this effort to reclaim for ourselves."

Tribal college administrators say their programs are producing more confidence in students. At Leech Lake, nearly half of tribal college graduates move on to four-year programs at mainstream colleges.

The relatively new institutions have some growing pains. Tribal colleges are structured to be independent of politics. But political clashes between tribal governments and tribal colleges are common across the country.

College presidents on the White Earth, Red Lake and Leech Lake reservations have all been fired for various reasons within the past year. Helen Klassen was fired and then reinstated as president of White Earth Tribal College this summer. She says tribal governments are still learning their boundaries.

Klassen says despite occasional setbacks, tribal colleges are producing an educated workforce that's breathing new life into struggling reservation economies. And she says the colleges are slowly creating an intellectual renaissance on reservations.

"It is new, it is different. It brings in new values, new ways of acting, new ways of thinking, new ways of research, freedom of inquiry, and the capacity to learn and to gain critical thinking skills to read documents and to critique what is around them," said Klassen.

Indian educators are still struggling with what they say is a huge funding disparity between tribal and mainstream colleges. Tribal colleges receive $3,900 per student in federal dollars. That's less than half of what the state spends on students.

Still, tribal colleges are preparing for more growth. The Leech Lake Tribal College is planning to build a new campus. Construction on the first phase of the project could begin later this month.

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