Supporting Native American Education

Students in a College Horizons workshop at Bowdoin College, 2015. Photo courtesy of College Horizons.

In a semester or two, Joire Arliss Chavez expects to finish an associate degree in mathematics at Little Big Horn College in Crow Agency, Montana. The 20-year-old member of the Crow Nation then plans to transfer to Montana State University in Bozeman and pursue a bachelor’s degree in engineering.

What could smooth the transition from a two-year tribal community college with 400 students to a four-year research university with nearly 16,000?

“I think maybe some more support, like a mentor system, or something like that, where you know people and you can talk to people and even maybe meet up with somebody and have that extra support,” Chavez replies. “That would be really cool.”

That kind of help, and more, is coming for Native American students through two new programs offered by the American Indian College Fund, a long-time Mellon Foundation grantee, and College Horizons, a new partner.

Programs at both organizations will guide students into and through tribal colleges, state universities, and selective private institutions and will foster a college-going culture and increased degree completion. College Horizons focuses on students who are not on reservations while the College Fund concentrates efforts on tribal colleges. Both efforts are critically needed.

Native Americans trail far behind the general population in higher education. Despite making up two percent of the country’s population, they account for just one percent of college students. About 13 percent of adult Natives have a college degree, compared to 26 percent of American adults overall.

In 2011, President Obama recognized the national need to lift those numbers by issuing an executive order creating the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education. Mellon participated in a White House meeting on Native youth in 2015 because the foundation has had a long-standing interest in supporting the education of Native American students.

Since December of 2015, the Foundation has made a $3 million investment in improving both the college going and successful transfer rates for Native students and ensuring that they have the highest possible preparation for college. These grants mark a new, targeted interest by Mellon to fund a select number of programs aimed at high school students that help colleges and universities diversify their student population.

In March 2016, the College Fund received $2.4 million to encourage high school students to apply to college and prepare them for the admissions process, to support transfer students from tribal community colleges, and to implement a bridge program for incoming freshmen. Those programs, starting this summer, will focus on students on reservations and at tribal colleges.

Community college students like Chavez frequently face a number of hurdles when transferring to a four-year institution, including differences in class and campus size, greater academic expectations, and a new institutional culture. Many are also the first in their families to go to college, and require additional support and resources while navigating the transfer process.

Previously, Mellon’s support to the College Fund was for faculty development at tribal colleges. “Only recently have we been talking with them mostly about direct impacts on students,” says Armando Bengochea, Mellon’s program officer for diversity.

The traditional mission of the College Fund was to provide scholarships to students at the nation’s 37 tribal colleges, which enroll 20,000 of the country’s 180,000 Native students. “When Mellon offered this opportunity for us to look at expanding into building a college-going environment for more tribal students, it felt to me like a natural extension of the work that we already do,” notes Cheryl Crazy Bull who is Sicangu Lakota and president and CEO of the American Indian College Fund in Denver.

“I think this is a very important project,” says Shelley Lowe, director of Harvard’s Native American program and coauthor of a book on tribal colleges. Lowe says she is excited about Mellon's grantmaking that encourages high school students to continue their education, whether at two-year or four-year institutions. “I think that just pushing the idea of higher education will always be at the forefront of tribes and their thinking and their hopes and wishes for youth. And it’s a good time to be increasing the number of students who get their undergraduate degrees by looking at those who are already in two-year programs and transitioning them in.”

College Horizons, based in Pena Blanca, New Mexico, has an impressive record over nearly two decades with a one-week summer program that prepares top Native high school students to attend selective colleges. Of the 2,800 students the nonprofit has served, 85 percent have graduated from college in four or five years.

In December 2015, Mellon awarded $650,000 to Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, in partnership with College Horizons, to support writing academies to hone college-level skills of students admitted to selective institutions. The students will be chosen from around the country, not just reservations, through a competitive process. Lawrence will host the academy in 2017, followed by Amherst College in 2018, and a third institution in 2019.

“Writing is the most important skill that a college student needs,” says Carmen Lopez, executive director of College Horizons. “We wanted to focus on the writing so they’re prepared for college-level writing once they step onto their college campuses.”

Lawrence is one of 47 selective schools that partner with the nonprofit. Many are also partners in the Mellon-Mays Undergraduate Fellowship (MMUF) program, which aims to increase the diversity of humanities professors. Lopez, who is Navajo, says her organization will advise alumni of the academies about MMUF and other competitive fellowships, as well as internships and research opportunities.

The College Fund and College Horizons will provide the kind of support that Chavez desires by regularly checking on the students they serve for at least a year and guiding them to campus resources they need.

The College Fund, for example, is hiring a student success coordinator to do the check-ins, in addition to two staffers to do college admissions coaching, and it will promote an 800 number that, among other things, students can call for college coaching. The fund will also train tribal college administrators to advise high school students and their families. The grant will allow College Horizons to gradually expand its post-enrollment advising to students from all its programs, not just the writing academies.

 “One of the things that the [educational] literature says is [Native] students feel like they are very isolated when they go to college,” notes Lowe, who is Navajo. “Anything to make them feel like there’s somebody there encouraging them and pointing out opportunities is great.”

The College Fund will also engage parents who live on reservations, starting with making the case for sending their children to college.

“Tribal students not only go to school for themselves, but they go to school for their community,” says Crazy Bull. “They can serve their community by bringing skills and knowledge back to tribal governments or reservation institutions.”

One option Chavez is considering, after completing her education at Montana State, is working at a federal Indian Health Service hospital as a civil engineer.

“That’s what I want to try,” Chavez says.