Closing achievement gaps among students of different races, ethnicities, and financial backgrounds is a common goal that brings ATD Network colleges together. In accordance with our equity statement, we commit to offering students what they need to succeed. But determining how best to do that is perhaps the most difficult challenge we face.
As we think about equity and look for solutions, the philosophy and experience of some of the ATD Network’s newest colleges, the country’s 35 tribal colleges and universities (TCUs), offer valuable lessons.
In the language of ATD’s equity statement, TCUs “address structural inequities that are . . . the result of historic and systemic social injustices.” In fact, TCUs could be called equity-by-design institutions based on their location, the students they serve, their physical design, their approach to serving students, and cost. Only 17 percent of Native Americans have an associate’s degree or higher, although TCUs are working hard to address this. Like other colleges and universities in the U.S., their mission is to provide quality education to the students they serve and to serve their surrounding community. Unlike other institutions of higher education, however, TCUs have unique additional missions of cultural preservation and revitalization and tribal nation building.
TCUs are located in some of the poorest counties and serve one of the most historically underrepresented and poorest populations in the U.S. Approximately 85 percent of TCU students receive Pell Grants. The colleges and universities, which have existed since 1968 with the launch of Navajo Community College (now Diné College) in Arizona, are mostly found in rural areas on or near Indian reservations. They serve about 80 percent of Native American territory, providing, for many, the only access to higher education that allows students to remain in their communities. They are chartered by their own tribal governments with the exception of three, which are chartered by the Federal government.
Every aspect of the TCU student experience validates the cultural heritage of the majority student population. The effect creates an inclusive and welcoming environment where the risk of stereotype threat is low and cultural and contextual understanding is high. In short, the majority of students can see part of themselves in the campus, thus affirming their identity, self-esteem and potentially their confidence to succeed. The culturally responsive curriculum and teaching methods used by many faculty at TCUs is shown to further reinforce the development of identity.
Finally, TCUs take a holistic approach to serving Native American students by serving the mind, body, and spirit in ways that consider both cultural and social factors. They are high-touch institutions by nature. Living those values often requires a monumental effort by TCU faculty and staff given their scarce resources and the extensive needs of many of their students. High poverty, intergenerational trauma, lack of encouragement at home to pursue education, lack of adequate preparation for college, and family responsibilities require an all hands-on-deck approach at TCUs to address students’ academic, social, and emotional learning issues.
While TCUs approach the ideal in addressing many aspects of equity for their students, TCUs are deepening their equity journey with a number of supports from Achieving the Dream, by examining the persistence and performance of various subgroups attending their institutions. In 2018, Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), new to the ATD Network in 2017, began their deep dive into understanding the importance and use of disaggregated data to identify at-risk students and target and evaluate interventions to improve outcomes among various subgroups of students. Through the work of the TCUs, ATD is learning more about how TCUs create conditions for the success of their students through intentional design and we’ve encouraged them to share their expertise within the ATD Network.
We will be incorporating lessons learned in our equity work in 2019.