12/16/2014 11:21 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Not a Full Picture: Evaluating Tribal College Success Using Mainstream Measures

This post is co-authored with Ginger Stull, a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania.

On November 26, 2014, an article by Sarah Butrymowicz titled "Tribal colleges give poor return on more than $100 million a year in federal money" appeared in The Hechinger Report. From our perspective, the title should have been "Tribal Colleges give remarkable return on a meager $100 million a year in federal funding." In spite of a dire need for funding, Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) are preserving and building upon Indigenous culture and educating Native people.

Total annual federal expenditures to higher education in 2014 were $140 billion. 100 million of that was given to TCUs. To put that in context, if federal expenditures were a 9-inch pie, Tribal Colleges would receive a slice thinner than the knife used to cut the pie. Tribal Colleges serve roughly 30,000 full and part time students. 100 million dollars divided between all of these students is about $3,333 dollars per student per year.

Although TCUs' missions are much broader than awarding degrees, some are excellent at it. For example, Navajo Technical University in New Mexico has a 91% graduation rate, and its total cost to degree is $52,325, lower than the state average of $77,326. Moreover, Tribal Colleges, which are mainly two-year institutions, have a 56 percent transfer rate; this rate is far greater than community colleges in general, which have a transfer rate of 25 percent. With that said, it is a mistake to hold TCUs to narrowly defined, mainstream measures of success, that are often at odds with Tribal Colleges' unique institutional missions. Mainstream discussions of institutional success often focus on enrollment numbers, 4 or 6-year graduation rates, standardized test scores, rankings, faculty research output, and so on. However, TCUs find success in Nation Building, language revitalization, personal student growth, and increasing Tribal sovereignty. Who measures these contributions to society and education?

TCUs also provide extensive services to their communities beyond awarding degrees. Many run healthcare centers, childcare centers, provide native language classes, offer GED tutoring and testing, as well as remedial and continuing education. These activities provide essential services to the community, but also drive up the educational costs the institutions incur. In her article, Butrymowicz presents data collected by the Chronicle of Higher Education on institutional expenditures. These data include public service expenditures within the educational expenditure category. As a result, some TCUs appear to over spend given all of the services that they offer to the public. However, in reality, unlike the extreme examples that Butrymowicz provides, TCU spending toward completion is only marginally higher than comparable institutions in their states, demonstrating how these institutions do more with less considering the income and lack of preparedness of many TCU students. Additionally, all TCUs contribute to their local communities by adding jobs and tax revenues, for example the College of Menominee Nation added $37 million to the local economy, provided 404 jobs, and in 2011 generated $833,000 in tax revenues for their tribe.

TCUs face many challenges; securing reliable funding may be the biggest. In most instances, Tribal Colleges are not recipients of state financial support and rely considerably upon federal assistance. Furthermore, most tribes do not levy taxes because their populations have such high poverty rates, so TCUs depend primarily on federal and private funding. The Tribally Controlled Community College Assistant Act (1978) is the legislation that provides the base operating funding for TCUs. The legislation currently authorizes funding of $8,000 per Native American student, however in FY 2011, operating funds equaled $5,235 per Native American student, with no funding awarded to non-native students, which compose about 20% of all TCU students (Higher Learning Commission, 2013). Further complicating this funding crisis is the rapid growth of Native American enrollment, as this growth vastly outpaces growth in funding. In this regard TCUs have become victims of their own success, and policy makers must address this situation.

In spite of what little fiscal resources TCUs have, they have been remarkably successful in ensuring affordability for their students. While many public institutions have responded to declining public funding by raising tuition, TCUs have kept tuition low. The average cost of attendance at a TCU in 2012-13 was approximately $14,566 per year (including room, board, books, and tuition averaged across institutions), while the average cost of attendance across all US institutions during the same time period was $20,234 per year. One of many examples of a TCU ensuring affordability is Chief Dull Knife College, an open access institution serving predominately low-income students, where tuition and fees are only $1,960 per term, and the graduation rate is 46 percent - a rate below the national average of 56 percent - but considering the socio-economic status of the institution's students still admirable.

Given the small amount of funding that TCUs receive from the federal government and other entities, they are providing a service to the nation's Native American students and doing so at little cost. Considering their community-focused mission and service to their surrounding communities is essential to understanding their full contributions. Using mainstream approaches to evaluating TCUs, which are part of sovereign Indian nations, barely provides a glimpse into the impact of these institutions.