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This paper was presented at the Expanding Minority Opportunities: First Annual National Conference held at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona on January 19-21, 1995.

Factors Affecting the Retention of American Indian and Alaska Native Students in Higher Education

Jon Reyhner and John Dodd


This paper contains a synthesis of research and writing on the subject of recruiting and retaining American Indian and Alaska Native students in tribal colleges and public and private universities, and it presents the results of a study of twenty-four successful American Indian college students who were seniors at a state supported college in Montana. Family support, Indian advocacy group support (for example the work of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society), peer support, and institutional support (including minority student offices) are examined with the purpose of identifying what factors lead to Native student persistence in higher education. Successful students in the study were mostly non-traditional (in the college sense) students who had interrupted their college studies at least once. They identified as obstacles to their college success prejudice, finances, language, and alcohol in descending order. These students were helped in their college career most frequently by caring and understanding faculty. Recommendations are made on what needs to be done to orient new Native students to the higher education setting and what college professors need to do to adapt their teaching styles to the needs of Native students.

The question of what factors lead to some Indian students to persist in their quest for higher education and others not to persist was brought home to me recently on a visit to a reservation school. The son of one of the Indian teachers had just that morning been thrown fifty feet through the windshield of his car after what was described to me as a "night of drinking." He had graduated the previous Spring from the local high school and gone to a state university about one hundred miles away where my daughter had met him this past Fall at the Indian Center, but he did not even finish out his first semester.

One of his junior high teachers now teaching at my University told me about this boy's potential. He went to visit him at the hospital where the doctor noted how "lucky" this boy was to have not suffered any broken bones, though he face was cut up and he had a major loss of memory, hopefully temporary.

While this boy may well return to college and be successful sometime in the future, more needs to be done to keep such students in college. There will always be college dropouts because even if we could fully prepare people for what they were getting into when they go off to college, it is only human to change ones mind periodically about what one wants to do with one's life. However, while dropping out cannot be eliminated, much can be done to reduce the chances that students will be pushed out because of their lack of academic preparation, their lack of knowledge of what they are getting into, or the unfriendly/impersonal environment of many academic institutions.

Scott (1986) pointed out that nearly every reference in the literature about American Indian students and higher education addresses the small proportions of American Indian students who complete high school and go on to college and that the ones who do go to college are less likely to complete a degree program. Recognizing the abundant research on American Indian people, Swisher (1993) pointed out that much of it has not met the needs of Indian people.

One way to address the needs of this population is to study American Indian people who persevere and succeed in college and university programs so that others can replicate that success. It is also important to recognize that many American Indian students are successful. For example, four thousand three hundred and thirty eight American Indian people successfully completed bachelor's degrees, one thousand one hundred and eight completed master's degrees and, one hundred and two completed doctoral degrees in 1989-90 (Chronicle of Higher Education, 1992). Those higher education degrees represent perseverance and academic success, which can be emulated by others.

Still there is a limited amount of research on successful American Indian students. Coburn and Nelson (1989) conducted a study of American Indian students who had successfully completed high school in northwestern United States. They reported that teachers were the strongest influence in the students' educational experiences and that students appreciate teachers who compliment students for doing well, provide evidence of respect for students and who are caring persons. More research exists on why Indians drop out of school. Reyhner (1992) compiled research on American Indian dropouts for the Indian Nations at Risk Task Force. He found that about one third of Native students never finish high school, the highest dropout rate of any minority group. This relatively high dropout rate makes for less students in the pool of potential college entrants. His review of research identified seven school-based reasons why Native students drop out of school:

  1. Large schools that present students with an impersonal education
  2. The perception that teachers do not care about Native students
  3. Passive, "transmission" teaching methods
  4. Inappropriate curriculum designed for mainstream America
  5. The use of culturally-biased tests and the flunking of Native students
  6. Tracking of Native students into low achieving classes and groups
  7.  Lack of Native parent involvement
These reasons for dropping out are for the most part equally valid for both high school and college students.

The most interesting dropout studies asked Native students why they dropped out of school. A 1986 study commissioned by the Navajo Tribe found that the top three reasons dropouts gave for leaving school were bored with school (20.5%), problems with other students (15.5%), and retained in grade due to absenteeism (14.2%). The same study found that 37% of those who planned to drop out of school also reported being bored with school, while 29% planned to drop out because they had flunked classes (because of absenteeism as well as academic failure). Only 8% specifically gave academic failure as a reason (Brandt, 1992).

A number of studies show that dropouts, Indian and non-Indian alike, perceive their teachers as uncaring. This lack of caring at both the high school and college level often results from the large number of students that teachers have to deal with on a day to day basis. Deyhle quotes an Indian high school student:

It was just like they [teachers] want to put us aside, us Indians. They didn't tell us nothing about careers or things to do after high school. They didn't encourage us to go to college. They just took care of the white students. They just wanted to get rid of the Indians. (1992, pp. 24-25) Through interviewing dropouts and observing classrooms, Deyhle found that the Indian students in her study did not have the academic language skills, specifically reading, to be able to do the typical type of classroom work required in class -- reading the textbook and doing questions at the end of the chapter. This common type of classwork bores students when they have the academic language skills to perform it, but it is doubling boring when students must sit quietly at their desks doing nothing because they cannot read well enough to do the assignment.

In addition, Indians can find mainstream textbooks either irrelevant to their lives or offensive. Textbooks seldom treat Indians as "contemporary people who have made and will make contributions" (Brandt, 1992) and often view history as a process of civilizing a savage frontier. False ideas are prevalent on and off campuses such as the notion that all Indians get money from the government. Davis (1992) in her study of ten successful Indian college students found that "benign neglect" was the best behavior of their K-12 teachers and the only secondary school encouragement they received was in extra-curricular activities. The students in her study succeeded in spite of schools and teachers. She found that some families resisted education because successful students were likely to leave the reservation permanently in order to find employment. Her students were "not from stable, financially comfortable, well-educated families" (p. 28), and successful students "were able to retain their Indian culture, to be Indian, and to be a successful student in the white middle class system" (p. 29).

In a recent investigation of American Indian college student persistence Benjamin, Chambers, and Reiterman (1993) reported that an ability to adopt new traits while maintaining a traditional perspective is common among American Indian students who persist in college. They suggested that higher education's insistence on an inappropriate conformity to the dominant culture may contribute to the high attrition rate. While these inferences are intriguing, their study was conducted with interviews of only eleven Navajo students, making additional research efforts imperative.

Lin, LaCounte, and Eder (1988) reported that American Indian students had a strong feeling of isolation that was based on a perception of hostility from the white campus community. Huffman (1991) reported perceptions of pervasive racism encountered by American Indian college students most often shown in by verbal attacks (racial slurs and name-calling) and indicated the consequences are often an early exit from academic institutions to return to more familiar and supporting settings within the home and family.

Hoover and Jacobs (1992) reported on the importance of maintaining specific organizations for American Indian students and support services. Many colleges and universities with substantial populations of American Indian students have intertribal clubs, as well as programs to provide academic support. One way to get around the high cost, large impersonal classes, inappropriate curriculum, and distances involved in attending large universities is for American Indian and Alaska Native students to transition into higher education through attending tribal or community colleges.

Wright (1985), reviewed the literature related to various support services for American Indian college students. The review included academic support services, counseling support services, existence of ethnic studies courses, student centers, and organizations. He said that support services are necessary and recommended that high school counselors evaluate the support service programs and commitment to American Indian students prior to recommending that students attend specific post secondary education settings.


A study "American Indian Student Retention" by John M. Dodd, Florence Garcia, Cynthia Meccage, and J. Ron Nelson (in press) was undertaken to learn what academically successful students in one post secondary school setting encounter and what persons and/or support services help with their academic success. For this study, the population was American Indian students who were classified as seniors at a state supported college in Montana. Approximately 6% of Montana's population is American Indian, who are representative of eleven tribal groups from its seven reservations. However only 2.94% of the college population is American Indian. At the institution studied only 8.3% of the entering American Indian freshmen graduated during the years 1984 through 1989 compared to 23.3% of the non-minority students.


Of the 3,626 students enrolled at the at the college during the spring semester of 1993 a total of 189 (5.3%) were American Indian. Of the thirty-eight American Indian students who had achieved senior status it was possible to contact twenty-four (63%) by telephone who all agreed to participate. They were told that a study was being conducted of American Indian students who were academically successful and that they had been selected because they had achieved senior status. Twelve were interviewed in person and twelve were interviewed by telephone.

Each student was asked for demographic information including gender, age range, marital status, whether or not they spoke and understood an American Indian language, the educational attainment of their natural parents, when they enrolled in a degree program, their major and degree they were working toward, as well as their tribal affiliation. Then they were asked thirteen open ended questions about their college experience. The questions were asked of students without attempting to guide their answers in any particular way.


The question regarding tribal affiliation yielded eleven different responses. The largest number of students were from the Crow Reservation, the closest reservation. The participants were asked when they started working on their current degree. Only six of the students had started within a time frame to permit obtaining a degree without interrupting their academic pursuit. The remaining eighteen students had either returned to college after leaving without a degree or initially enrolled after engaging in employment or other non-school activities.

The most frequent major (ten students) was business, followed by human services (eight students), and education (four students), while one was majoring in sociology and one was majoring in chemistry and mathematics. When asked what they planned to do after college, six said they would look for a job, while the remainder were more specific. Six wanted to become teachers, four wanted to work toward a master's degree, three indicated they wanted human service casework jobs, two wanted to work as consultants, two wanted to be governmental administrators, and one wanted to continue with their present job.

The participants were asked what they thought it meant to be academically successful. The responses were categorized into those which indicated external control such as completing requirements for courses or degrees while the other twelve indicated internal measures such as self satisfaction or meeting their own goals. They were evenly divided among those who indicated external criteria such as obtaining high grades and those who indicated internal criteria such as learning what they had set out to learn. In addition, twenty-one said they thought they were academically successful, while two did not report feeling academically successful and one reported never having considered it.

The participants were asked why some American Indian students were more successful than others. Their responses indicated that some see education as a way to set and reach a future goal. They cited maturity, determination, ability to cope with racial and cultural differences, family encouragement, ability to adjust to new situations, parents and their educational background, and support systems as possible reasons why some American Indian students are more successful than others.

When they were asked what had influenced their success, the most frequent response (20) was family, which was followed by seven who indicated teachers, and five who said friends. Participants also mentioned religious faith, tribe, co-worker, and support services.

When they were asked to indicate particular obstacles American Indian students face, the answers were again varied. Frequent responses were prejudice (11), finances (8), language (6) and alcohol (3). Responses mentioned two or fewer times were (a) working (b) lack of expectation for American Indian students (c) family matters (d) difficulty in finding housing (e) fear of asking questions of the bureaucracy (f) child care problems (g) weak academic background and (h) low self-esteem. Twenty-two (92%) indicated that at one time or another they had considered leaving college because of some of these obstacles. Twenty-two had also known other American students who had abandoned college for similar reasons.

All but one of the participants (96%) stated that prejudice exists on the campus. When the students were queried about whether prejudice impeded success, 20 (83%) responded that it did while four (17%) indicated that prejudice did not impede success.

When the participants were asked with whom they would talk in case of difficulty with their school work, 18 (75%) indicated that they would go to support services. The support services mentioned were the federally funded Student Opportunity Services/TRIO (which provides academic support for students with disabilities, first generation college, and economically disadvantaged students) and a smaller state supported Multicultural Student Services program. The second most frequent response was faculty (7). Four persons indicated they would turn to friends and three to family. When asked if they had ever sought help from faculty members, eighteen participants (75%) said they had gone to a faculty member for academic help, but six (25%) indicated they had not received the help they sought.

When the participants were asked how faculty members make it easier to learn, there was a variety of responses. The most frequent response (7) was that they are caring and understanding faculty. Respondents mentioned positive faculty traits such as willingness to respond to questions along with providing examples (drawn from their personal experience), relaxing time requirements, and being culturally sensitive. Other positive faculty attributes mentioned were (a) having an open mind (b) giving extra time to assignments and tests (c) providing encouragement (d) making themselves available so students do not have to talk in front of others about personal problems and (e) providing extra help sessions for groups as positive attributes of faculty members.

The participants were also asked what faculty members do that hinders learning. The most frequent responses addressed communication and language (6) and negative attitudes (3). Additional responses were (a) being rigid and defensive (b) not keeping office hours (c) lecturing without an opportunity for questions and answers (d) being inconsiderate (e) being unclear (f) talking above students (g) lacking awareness of cultural differences (h) being prejudiced (i) not caring and (j) exhibiting negative attitudes toward the class.

Finally, the participants were asked to add any information they thought might be helpful to the study. They listed the availability of the Intertribal Indian Club and provision of tutors as helpful. They also mentioned the need for more scholarship money and better faculty understanding of American Indian cultures.


These academically successful American Indian students were above traditional college student age. While many had stopped out of school for some time, obviously they were persevering persons. Most of them were married or had been married. Approximately as many spoke and understood their tribal language as did not. The majority of the students were from families in which they were first generation college graduates. Most had returned to college after dropping out or started college at an older than average age.

Most of the students indicated that their families were of primary importance in providing support. This finding supports Hall (1991) who wrote that the family is the most important unit in American Indian cultures, and a study by Davis of Indian college graduates that found"family support was a major factor in the graduates' success" (1992, p. 29). Most of the students indicated they would go to special support service programs rather than faculty for academic difficulty.

While prejudice was mentioned frequently, these successful students indicated they had found ways to cope with it. This indicates that American Indian high school students who attend this college, and probably similar institutions, should be prepared to encounter prejudice. Most had thought about leaving college and knew other American Indian students who had dropped out. Finances, family problems, alcohol, and a lack of acceptance were reasons given.

Since few of the reported obstacles to success were academic, student support services are important assets which contribute to success on this campus and should be maintained. Just as Colburn and Nelson (1989) reported that faculty are important in keeping high school students in school, these college seniors reported the importance of caring and concerned faculty to their academic success. Special activities and organizations such as Indian clubs and campus Pow Wows help students maintain their identify while embarking on new studies and careers.


While keeping in mind their are broad difference among American Indian and Alaska Native college students (Huffman, 1993), based on the research reviewed above we make the following general recommendations to improve the retention of American Indian and Alaska Native students in higher education:

  1. Assign each incoming Indian student a volunteer faculty mentor from his major or area of interest.
  2. Get each incoming Indian student into a least one low enrollment course so that can get some individual faculty attention.
  3. Have a liaison person in financial aide office that is familiar with tribal and BIA scholarship programs.
  4. Encourage organizations such as the American Indian Science and Engineering Society that provide mentoring and support of Indian students.
  5. Hire more American Indian/Alaska Native faculty to be role models and provide support.
  6. Work to provide a less ethnocentric curriculum in U.S. history and other courses so that the Indian point of view is presented and so that American Indians and Alaska Natives are seen as contemporary as well as historical people.
  7. Have an Indian student services office or an Indian desk in a multicultural student services office.
  8. Encourage faculty to supplement lecture and textbook work with group work and activities/projects that allow students to interact with each other and the faculty.
  9. Encourage faculty to learn more about American Indians and Alaska Natives.
  10. Encourage summer college orientation programs open to Indian students such as Upward Bound.
  11. Encourage students who have marginal academic qualifications to enter transitional Tribal or Community College programs.
  12. Have an active campus-wide anti-alcohol program.

Benjamin, D.P., Chambers, S., & Reiterman, G. (1993). A focus on American Indian college persistence. Journal of American Indian Education, 32 (2), 24-39.

Brandt, E.A. (1992). The Navajo Area Student Dropout Study: Findings and implications. Journal of American Indian Education, 31(2), 48-63..

Chronicle of Higher Education (1992). The Chronicle of Higher Education Almanac, Washington, D.C.: Author.

Coburn, J. & Nelson, S. (1989). Teachers do make a difference: What Indian graduates say about their school experience. Portland: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 306 071).

Davis, J. (1992). Factors contributing to post secondary achievement of American Indians. Tribal College, 4(2), 24-30.

Deyhle, D. (1992). Constructing failure and maintaining cultural identity: Navajo and Ute school leavers. Journal of American Indian Education, 31(2), 24-47.

Dodd, J.M., Garcia, F., Meccage, C., & Nelson, J.R. (in press). American Indian student retention. NASPA Journal.

Hall, M. (1991). Gadugi: A model of service-learning for Native American communities. Phi Delta Kappan, 72, 754-757.

Hoover, J. J., & Jacobs, C. C. (1992). A survey of American Indian college students: Perceptions toward their study skills/college life. Journal of American Indian Education, 32 (1), 21-29.

Huffman, T. E. (1991). The experiences, perceptions, and consequences of campus racism among Northern Plains Indians. Journal of American Indian Education. 30 (2), 25-34.

Huffman, T.E. (1993). A typology of Native American college students. In T.E. Schirer & S.M. Branstner (Eds.) Native American values: Survival and Renewal (pp. 67-80). Saulte Ste. Marie, MI: Lake Superior State University.

Lin, R. L., LaCounte, D., & Eder, J. (1988). A study of Native American students in a predominantly white college. Journal of American Indian Education, 27 (3), 8-15.

Reyhner, J. (1992). American Indians out of school: A review of school-based causes and solutions. Journal of American Indian Education, 31(3), 37-56.

Scott, W. J. (1986). Attachment to Indian culture and the "difficult situation": A study of American Indian college students. Youth and Society, 17 (4), 381-395.

Swisher, K. G. (1993). From passive to active research in Indian country. Tribal College, 4(3), 4-5.

Wright, B. (1985). Programming success: Special student services American Indian college student. Journal of American Indian Education, 24 (1), 1-7.

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