Besieged by poverty, American Indians have historically trailed other minority groups in attending and finishing college. Many lack the literacy skills to succeed in college courses or job-training programs—natural routes to employment.
But as the country focuses on increasing college attainment and reducing unemployment, basic education for adults is becoming a national priority. The Obama administration and nonprofit groups like the Lumina Foundation for Education are encouraging more Americans to go beyond high school to prepare for jobs, a hard road for low-skilled adults. Many are high-school dropouts, and even those with a general-equivalency diploma, or GED, tend to have math and reading skills below the eighth-grade level.
So tribal colleges—some located on reservations with low education rates and high unemployment—are increasing their efforts to teach and train more of their populations. Several tribal colleges are employing a model called Breaking Through, developed by the advocacy groups Jobs for the Future and the National Council for Workforce Education, to help American Indians pursue higher education.
“So many of our students are not prepared for college at all,” says Carrie L. Billy, president of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium. “This is the challenge so many of our institutions face.”
Six tribal colleges are the latest to join a growing list of community colleges involved in the seven-year-old project. Breaking Through applies four methods to motivate students, which include comprehensive support services and remedial work embedded in credit-bearing courses.
The model has produced positive results at community colleges around the country, as more low-skilled adults have completed associate degrees and found employment. And students who have placed into developmental courses at Salish Kootenai College, in Montana, and Leech Lake Tribal College, in Minnesota, are progressing faster now that the institutions have put in place, respectively, a summer bridge program and integrated remedial coursework.
At the same time, campus officials know that it is not enough to graduate students—that the colleges must also help them find jobs. That is difficult on Indian reservations, where unemployment rates reach 80 percent. Typically the main employer is the tribal government, and other industries are practically nonexistent. But students tend to want to stay.
So despite the odds, tribal colleges are pushing ahead with plans to develop not only an educated work force but also employment opportunities on reservations. The efforts, educators say, are all about improving the fortunes of the American Indian population.
Ms. Billy is excited about the tribal colleges’ role. “They are taking students where they are,” she says, “and giving them the hope that things will change.” (Read more. May require paid subscription.)