How Colleges Can Support Native and Indigenous American Students

Indigenous Americans are struggling to gain access to higher education. Learn how higher education institutions can and should help them do it.
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  • Native American students face many challenges on the road to higher education.
  • Their enrollment and retention rates are dependent on overcoming these barriers.
  • Colleges and universities have a duty to support Indigenous students.
  • Fulfilling Native American students will enfranchise their entire communities and create equity.

In Arizona, a student drives three hours with her father to and from class to go to her chemistry lab. This journey is a portion of Native American first-generation college student Ashlyn Adakai's regular commute to class. Adakai's story shows just a few of the struggles that Native and Indigenous American students must overcome to access education. But many other Native American college hopefuls do not have the opportunity to enroll or are not able to finish their education due to past — and current — systemic oppression and discrimination.

Though some universities have recognized the support needs of Indigenous American students — like the University of Chicago (UChicago) via their Native American Support Program — others have yet to fulfill that need.

Enrollment and Retention Challenges for Native and Indigenous Students

Native and Indigenous American students have shockingly low enrollment and retention rates. They make up only 1% of undergraduates nationwide. And only 25% of Native Americans hold an associate degree or higher — the rate for Americans overall is 42%.

These statistics are representative of the financial and discriminatory struggles Native American students face at the primary and secondary education levels. When schools do not have support from the state and federal governments, their students struggle academically. Consequently, enrollment and retention rates at the collegiate level suffer.

Cultural factors are also at play in this dilemma. Some Indigenous community elders oppose traditional schools because of the history of abuse and discrimination in government-sponsored boarding schools — and rightfully so. Young students must weigh their desire to pursue an education within the context of their heritage.

Standardized testing, which many students must take to enter a college or university, is a substantial hurdle. Native American students have some of the lowest SAT scores. This may be due to the lack of federal support for Native students and the racist origins of standardized testing. However, this barrier to enrollment may be diminishing as the pandemic has loosened requirements for standardized testing for applicants.

Funding is one of the final and most impactful portions of the enrollment and retention problem for Native American students, as 20% of Indigenous households make less than $5,000 a year. Students may have no other option than to stay at home and help contribute economically to their families.

These are just a few barriers that Native students face when considering college.

How Colleges Are Taking Action

Some colleges recognize how the odds are stacked against Indigenous students. These institutions are making it their mission to support these communities. UChicago's Native American Support Program does just that. It promotes Native student success through academic coaching, additional financial aid, and cultural programs (including an annual powwow).

University of Alaska Anchorage has a unique program that focuses heavily on Indigenous communities. For example, its National Resources Center for Alaska Native Elders provides resources on elder care — from food to recognizing abuse, they aim to help family members, caregivers, and elders themselves. And the Indigenous Research Center of the Americas at the University of California, Davis has served Native Americans for over 30 years. It conducts research to promote the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples of the Americas.

Finally, Tribal Colleges and Universities, or TCUs, were created specifically to serve Native American students. Their existence is a haven for Indigenous students and their families, and they can attend knowing that their education will honor their cultural experiences.

Other Ways to Promote the College Experience for Native and Indigenous Students

Universities must take on a share of the work to aid in the success of Native and Indigenous students.

Building Education Pipelines

Universities should create programs to specifically support recruiting and retaining Native American student populations. Colleges can create an educational pipeline for Native and Indigenous students by showing high school and middle school students that they are supporting Native communities.

Curating Community Outreach

Universities should cater to local Indigenous communities. Institutions should offer classes on local tribes and languages and hire speakers and professors from the local Native population. They should also take special consideration for students in rural communities like Adakai with long commutes and provide accommodations where necessary.

Additional Financial Support

The significance of providing financial aid for Native American students cannot be stressed enough. Universities should allocate more funding for these students and support federal and state legislation to provide aid. The Biden Administration's proposition of free community college would greatly benefit the Indigenous population. At the state level, New Mexico's free college at public universities and TCUs is a prime example of this kind of legislation.

Institutions can help break the glass ceiling for Indigenous students with these three tactics.


As institutions operating and benefiting from ancestral Indigenous land, universities must step up and make a conscious effort to support and empower Indigenous students. The systemic wrongs committed against Native Americans affect student populations and their communities, and universities must work to correct these injustices for the sake of Indigenous equity and posterity.

Colleges and universities must match their actions with their titles if they truly want to be sanctuaries for learning and progress. Providing financial and community resources for Indigenous students will be impactful and transformative for Native American students, families, and communities.