The History of Tribal Colleges and Universities

The History of Tribal Colleges and Universities
portrait of Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
by Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
Published on November 9, 2021
Reviewed by Erica Moore, Ph.D.

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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

Ilisagvik College

Barrow, Alaska

Inupiat


Diné College

Tsaile, Arizona

Navajo Nation


Tohono O'odham Community College

Sells, Arizona

Tohono O'odham Nation


Haskell Indian Nations University

Lawrence, Kansas

Est. by Bureau of Indian Education


Bay Mills Community College

Brimley, Michigan

Bay Mills Indian Community


Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Community College

Baraga, Michigan

Keweenaw Bay Indian Community


Saginaw Chippewa Tribal College

Mount Pleasant, Michigan

Saginaw Chippewa Tribe


Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College

Cloquet, Minnesota

Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa


Leech Lake Tribal College

Cass Lake, Minnesota

Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe


Red Lake Nation College

Red Lake, Minnesota

Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians


White Earth Tribal and Community College

Mahnomen, Minnesota

White Earth Nation


Blackfeet Community College

Browning, Montana

Blackfeet Nation


Chief Dull Knife College

Lame Deer, Montana

Northern Cheyenne Tribe


Aaniiih Nakoda College

Harlem, Montana

Gros Ventre and Assiniboine Tribes


Fort Peck Community College

Poplar, Montana

Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes


Little Big Horn College

Crow Agency, Montana

Crow Tribe of Indians


Salish Kootenai College

Pablo, Montana

Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes

Stone Child College

Box Elder, Montana

Chippewa Cree Tribe


Nebraska Indian Community College

Macy, Nebraska

Omaha Tribe of Nebraska


Little Priest Tribal College

Winnebago, Nebraska

Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska


Navajo Technical College

Crownpoint, New Mexico

Navajo Nation


Institute of American Indian Arts

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Pueblo Nations


Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute

Albuquerque, New Mexico

Pueblo Nations


Cankdeska Cikana Community College

Fort Totten, North Dakota

Spirit Lake Dakota Nation


Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College

New Town, North Dakota

Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Reservation


Sitting Bull College

Fort Yates, North Dakota

Standing Rock Sioux Tribe


Turtle Mountain Community College

Belcourt, North Dakota

Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa


United Tribes Technical College

Bismarck, North Dakota

United Tribes of North Dakota


Oglala Lakota College

Kyle, South Dakota

Oglala Sioux Tribe


Sinte Gleska University

Rosebud, South Dakota

Rosebud Sioux Tribe


Sisseton Wahpeton College

Sisseton, South Dakota

Sisseton Wahpeton Sioux Tribe


Northwest Indian College

Bellingham, Washington

Lummi Nation


College of Menominee Nation

Keshena, Wisconsin

Menominee Nation


Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Community College

Hayward, Wisconsin

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

The American Indian College Fund provides scholarships for over 4,000 American Indian students each year. Students can create a profile to apply for scholarships and other programs, including the tribal college transfer program. AIHEC represents tribal colleges and universities in the U.S. The organization provides resources on earning a TCU degree, college majors, and other higher education opportunities. A nonprofit organization that encourages Native American students to attend college, College Horizons offers admission counseling, financial aid advising, and other support resources. The organization also offers services for current college students and graduates. The White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education provides resources on tribal colleges, including information about enrolling at a tribally controlled college, applying for federal student aid, and completing college.

Featured Image: SolStock / E+ / Getty Images

Check out our college guide for Indigenous and Native American students. Learn about resources and organizations that support these learners. Review BestColleges' HBCU rankings to find out about the many HBCU schools available and how they can help you gain a quality education. Learn more about the history of women's colleges and their impact on women pursuing a quality college education.