The History of Tribal Colleges and Universities
Published November 9, 2021
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Starting in the 1960s, Native American and Alaska Native tribes began establishing colleges to specifically serve Indigenous students. Today, tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) play a central role in awarding college degrees to a historically excluded group of learners. These institutions also contribute to tribal sovereignty and strengthen tribal communities.
But what are tribal colleges and universities? And why are they important? In addition to preserving Indigenous languages and culture, tribal colleges enrolled roughly 10% of all Indigenous college students in the U.S. in 2016-17, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
What Is a Tribal College or University?
TCUs are postsecondary schools run by tribal governments. According to NCES, TCUs enrolled nearly 17,000 students in fall 2016, including more than 13,000 Indigenous students.
In 1968, the Navajo Nation established Diné College as the first tribally controlled college in the U.S. Before tribal colleges existed, many Native Americans and Alaska Natives were either shut out of higher education or forced into boarding schools that suppressed Indigenous practices and knowledge. These forced education programs pushed assimilation over preservation.
Tribal leaders across the country demanded self-determination in Indigenous education. The American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC), founded in 1973, advocates for the growing number of tribal colleges and universities
TCUs grant associate degrees, bachelor's degrees, and master's degrees. They aim to protect Native culture and encourage Indigenous students to earn college degrees. According to the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions (CMSI), several TCUs also rank among the fastest-growing community colleges. And TCUs enroll students from more than half of all federally recognized tribes.
Accredited Tribal Colleges and Universities Across the United States
Tohono O'odham Nation
Est. by Bureau of Indian Education
Bay Mills Indian Community
Keweenaw Bay Indian Community
Mount Pleasant, Michigan
Saginaw Chippewa Tribe
Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa
Cass Lake, Minnesota
Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe
Red Lake, Minnesota
Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians
White Earth Nation
Lame Deer, Montana
Northern Cheyenne Tribe
Gros Ventre and Assiniboine Tribes
Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes
Crow Agency, Montana
Crow Tribe of Indians
Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes
Box Elder, Montana
Chippewa Cree Tribe
Omaha Tribe of Nebraska
Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska
Crownpoint, New Mexico
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Fort Totten, North Dakota
Spirit Lake Dakota Nation
New Town, North Dakota
Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Reservation
Fort Yates, North Dakota
Standing Rock Sioux Tribe
Belcourt, North Dakota
Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa
Bismarck, North Dakota
United Tribes of North Dakota
Kyle, South Dakota
Oglala Sioux Tribe
Rosebud, South Dakota
Rosebud Sioux Tribe
Sisseton, South Dakota
Sisseton Wahpeton Sioux Tribe
Lac Courte Oreilles Tribe
Why Are Tribal Colleges and Universities Important?
TCUs serve a historically excluded group of students. Even today, according to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute (PNPI), Indigenous students make up less than 1% of the postsecondary student population, despite the fact that American Indians and Alaska Natives make up approximately 2% of the U.S. population. Less than 20% of young Native Americans enroll in college, compared with over 40% of all young adults in the U.S.
Because of the barriers preventing Indigenous students from attending college, only 16% of Native Americans earn bachelor's degrees or higher. TCUs play a major role in increasing the number of Indigenous college graduates.
While TCUs do not exclusively enroll Indigenous students, PNPI reports that 78% of TCU students identified as Native American in 2016. These students often study Indigenous culture and languages. They also earn liberal arts, STEM, and healthcare degrees through the lens of Indigenous perspectives.
The impact of TCUs also stretches into surrounding communities. These schools host programs that teach computer literacy, leadership skills, and health and wellness. Run by tribes on or near tribal land, these colleges strengthen tribal sovereignty.
Tribal colleges also provide mentorship opportunities. According to CMSI, Indigenous people made up 46% of the faculty and 71% of administrators at TCUs in 2012. In contrast, Native Americans and Alaska Natives held less than 1% of professorships nationally in 2018, according to NCES.
Additionally, TCUs often provide an affordable path to a college degree. According to AIHEC, TCU students pay an average annual tuition of under $3,000 per year, making TCUs among the least expensive postsecondary schools. Learners can also find scholarships for Native American students to help reduce out-of-pocket costs further.
TCUs help many Indigenous students reach their educational and career goals while also strengthening tribal communities.
Resources to Learn More About Tribal Colleges and Universities
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