Native Americans in Higher Education


Native Americans and Alaska Natives are a unique population of American society and a unique population on college and university campuses due to their origins, beliefs, principles, and aspirations. Additionally, Native Americans and Alaska Natives (NA/AN) face many challenges that other populations of students in post-secondary learning typically do not. These characteristics, among others, present challenges for both the student and the post-secondary institution. College and university environments have much to gain from the interaction and inclusion of NA/ANs in learning environments and social settings in a parallel magnitude that Native students have to gain from the college/ university experience.

Native Americans and Alaska Natives Defined

Native Americans and Alaska Natives (NA/AN) are classified by their blood lineage and geographical origin. The terms Native American and Alaska Native relate to any person or group having origins from any of the pre-European peoples of North America, and who maintain tribal affiliation (Mosholder, Waite, & Goslin, 2011). The terms Native American, Alaska Native, and Native are used interchangeably in this paper for ease of reference without intent to exclude tribal or other affiliation.

Native Americans and Alaska Natives as a group are the most underrepresented ethnic population on college campuses representing just 1% of the total student population in the United States (Shield, 2004). Further, NA/AN students have the highest dropout rate of any racial or ethnic group in the United States, exceeding 65% nationally (Shield, 2004). Despite these statistics, NA/AN students continue to enroll in colleges and universities intent on completing 2-

year or 4-year programs of study. Additional factors beyond their classification as Native impact their success, highlighted in current research summarized in this synthesis.

The Native American/ Alaska Native College Environment

Native American/ Alaska Natives face a complex and challenging environment attending college and persisting to successful degree attainment. A number of factors include student preparation, sense of community, support networks, and stereotyping. The following discussion will describe the areas remaining as barriers for NA/AN students and areas where Native students as a population have pooled successes in their higher education pursuit.

Student Preparation for Postsecondary Study

Native students continue to pursue higher education opportunities at increasing rates, but at significantly lower rates of attendance and degree completion than any other demographic at U.S. colleges and universities (Guillory, 2009). Qualitative research continues to point towards NA/AN students at colleges and universities arriving with subpar skills in math and English (Guillory, 2009; Mosholder et. al., 2016; Kirkness & Barnhardt, 2016). These impediments to progression in higher education programs cause angst and frustration among NA/AN students as they are often required to take remedial classes before they can enroll in degree seeking classes (Creighton, 2007). This contributes substantially to feelings of inadequacy and not belonging.

Compounding the lack of preparation is the style of instruction NA/AN students are accustomed to. Mosholder, Waite, and Goslin (2011) discuss how oral traditions used for instruction in Native cultures vary greatly from the style of teaching and learning at Eurocentric institutions. Significant focus is required for the student to adapt to the new instructional style.

Burk (2007) identified an additional challenge of institutional academic curricular competencies potentially being incongruous with the NA/AN values, beliefs, and traditions. She describes Native students from a “collectivist culture” struggling to adapt to the individualist approach of the post-secondary institution. This adjustment can be severe for a student who has experienced community learning resulting in group success during their previous educational experiences. Yang, Byers, and Fenton (2006) submit however, that the campus is a community and Tinto’s assertion that social integration’s equal importance to academic integration will mitigate some of the student’s anxiety and frustration. The challenge persists for the NA/AN student to adapt to the new environment in a manner that will not exacerbate feelings of inadequacy and not belonging as they transition from home to the campus environment.

Sense of Community

Adding to the feelings of inadequacy are the struggles with community support while attending institutions of higher education. Institutions of higher learning are categorized by cultures that inhibit NA/AN from exhibiting their traditional culture (Kirkness & Barnhardt, 2016) and severely impacts a students’ sense of belonging. Further, Mosholder, et. al. (2011) submit that the Native American student community is fragmented. A respondent to their study stated, “Yes, I’ve felt isolated [on campus]. These feelings were caused by my non-Native and Native peers in school. I felt they didn’t understand where I was coming from” (Mosholder et. al., 2011). The ultimate challenge for a NA/AN student is to remain in touch with their home community while developing a new community relationship with peers on campus.

Departing close-knit tribal communities for colleges and universities that are foreign in aspects ranging from organization and religion to culture and sense of belonging is one of the most difficult challenges for NA/AN students (Mosholder et. al., 2011; Creighton, 2007; Saggio,

2001). Departure interviews with various NA/AN students that have left institutions of higher education highlight a lacking a sense of community as the primary reason they dropped out of the institution (Taylor, 2001).

Colleges and universities have as significant a role to play in the inclusion of NA/AN students as the students do themselves. Many institutions that have had marked successes in incorporating native students, support the initiatives of the students; while those who struggle often fail to seek input from the population they aim to assist(Carpluk, 2002). Guillory (2009) identified a disconnect between student and faculty perceptions to challenges NA/AN students on campus face. Through his qualitative analysis of three Western land grant universities with high populations of NA/AN students, Guillory notes that an effort to align administrations’ understanding and objectives to those of the students will result in a unified effort to create inclusive and welcoming environments.

The challenge of inclusivity on higher education campuses is a daunting task. Without concerted efforts working towards the goal of higher NA/AN persistence and graduation rates, the population will remain the most marginalized in the Nation.

Support Networks

Native American and Alaska Native students continue to attribute their success to present and active support networks, and failure to non-existent networks. A respondent in Taylor’s (2001) study stated, “I don’t know how they make it if they can’t get home to see their families”, addressing fellow Native student’s success. Maintaining close ties with family and tribe greatly enhance student success. The danger arrives when students feel they are left to choose between their cultural origins and an assimilated White identity that will erase their heritage (Yang, Byers, & Fenton, 2006).

Saggio (2001) found during focus group discussions that during times of discouragement, students received validation from family members that encouraged them to remain in college. This is significant to persistence and completion for Native students as they navigate challenging and unknown situations on college campuses (Flynn, Duncan, & Jorgensen, 2012). Support networks create opportunities for Native students to realize they are not singularly facing challenging experiences. Families and institutional networks can be a strong enhancer to persistence beyond the first year (Saggio, 2001).

Because Native culture relies on community and tribe mentality, it is sometimes difficult for college and university faculty and administration to understand that their influence will likely be secondary to family and tribal influence on students (Taylor, 2001). Guillory (2009) found that students on the campuses he studied suggested social support on campus was critical to their persistence. This directly countered the administrator’s perspective, on the same campuses, that academic rigor and tailored programs of study were key to Native student persistence (Burk, 2007).


Another complex challenge NA/AN students face on campus is stereotyping. Stereotyping is seen in a multitude of forms from instructors making assumptions about a Native students capability (Taylor, 2001; Burk, 2007), to the primary texts used for instruction insufficiently representing Native American’s contributions (Burk, 2007), and even microaggressive racism displayed by fellow students (Carpluck, 2002; Taylor, 2001; Flynn, Duncan, & Jorgensen, 2012). Stereotyping provides yet another distractor for Native students from focusing on their studies to work towards degree completion.

An indirect impact of stereotyping on Native American and Alaska Native students is the dehumanizing effect of Native American caricatures as team mascots (Taylor, 2001). Students responding to surveys and group sessions conveyed their frustrations being judged as an object versus a person (Taylor, 2001; Creighton, 2007; Mosholder, Waite, & Goslin, 2011). Facing stereotypes that evoke further challenge to persistence and completion highlight the often overwhelming undertaking Native students face before they ever step foot in a classroom on a college campus.


Given the challenges that NA/AN students face on campuses paired with the challenges institutions face in incorporating NA/AN students, a couple practices are presented that will enable both parties to succeed in their respective goals. First is communication. This includes institutional communication starting at recruiting and continuing through program of study completion as well as communication of the student to their parents and tribal community. Second is the creation of support networks that bridge the gap of missing social identify, assist in deciphering cultural differences, and promote completion of study. The third is incorporating faculty training focused on recognizing cultural nuances and facilitating learning opportunities that enable learning.


A notable concern from Native American students enrolled in colleges and universities is the disparity between the institutions recruiters and website, compared to reality on campus (Taylor, 2001; Flynn, Duncan, & Jorgensen, 2012; Saggio, 2001). This is a poor representation of institutional values and further discourages students during their integration process (Flynn, Duncan, & Jorgensen, 2012). The challenge is for institutions to pursue diversity and inclusivity

from in all aspects of the institution’s operations to prevent false advertising and prevent lost confidence in students after their arrival. Marketing is critical to success of post-secondary institutions, but if the campaigns are based on fallacies or limited truths, the institution is likely to lose confidence in its current and future students.

The other aspect of communication is between the NA/AN student and their family, tribe, or support network. Modes of communication need to be present for positive reinforcement and encouragement for the student to persevere (Saggio, 2001). A student interviewed for Mosholder, Waite, & Goslin’s (2011) study stated “Having a strong student community. Having elders available to talk to” were essential to ensuring their persistence through challenges on campus, specifically relating to the benefit completion would bring to the tribe. Communication is critical to ensuring the persistence and completion of Native students.

Support Networks

To counter the feelings of lost community, some NA/AN students on campuses formed clubs and organizations, independent of institutional initiatives, to support their peers and motivate themselves during their endeavors. Mosholder et. al. (2016) identified groups of NA/AN students coming together to reclaim space in universities multicultural centers. This is a significant movement that highlights NA/AN students forming groups indicative of their native culture and of their own initiative. The ability of institutions to identify these movements and capitalize on the momentum may be a way to further incorporate NA/AN students into the campus environment and student population.

Faculty Training

A large portion of the literature on Native American inclusion and success in higher education discusses the role faculty and administrators play in enabling NA/AN success. Saggio

(2001) states faculty need to be aware of the family and tribal influence on NA/AN students and the likelihood those influence will outweigh institutional policy for Native students. Further, faculty training in understanding the backgrounds, learning styles, and cultures of NA/AN students will limit biases and enhance teaching strategies employed (Taylor, 2001). Faculty who interact with Native students on a regular basis should embrace these recommendations as it encourages their creativity in incorporating various instructional strategies into their teaching. These changes will influence NA/AN students’ success and benefit the rest of the classroom population as well.

Faculty training in cultural sensitivity will also create widespread, positive results to institutions enabling the gap between intuitional policy and practice to narrow. Taylor (2001) argues that diversity must permeate the entire institution and the commitment for diversity must come from the upper levels of administration. Without the prioritization of diversity from top administrators tied with the ownership by all faculty, achieving an inclusive environment for Native American students’ success will be difficult.


Native American and Alaska Native students face numerous challenges attending post-secondary education institutions. Challenges range from departing tribal norms and being first generation students to stereotyping and adjusting to different cultural norms on campuses. The NA/AN student’s ability to navigate these challenges and persist to completion give credence to the determination and ability of the population to succeed against daunting odds. Institutions must take ownership of building cohesive and inclusive learning environments that will contribute to the success of NA/AN students, alongside every other student enrolled.

College and university campuses are prime locations to facilitate inclusivity and understand the various cultures that comprise society. Native American students arriving from disadvantaged predicaments rely on the support networks established on campus and their sense of pride in their community to overcome challenges and persist to graduation. It is incumbent on colleges and universities to continue to build and maintain inclusive and welcoming environments for students from all ethnic backgrounds.


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