Breanne Lugar says the only reason she enrolled in college was so she could move away from the house she shared on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation with her parents, her boyfriend, and her five children.
"I never wanted to come to school," says Lugar, 26, who signed up at Sitting Bull College, one of the nation’s tribal colleges and universities located on Indian reservations and run entirely by tribes. "I hated school."
But after a semester of classes toward a degree in business administration helped her move from a job as blackjack dealer to the finance department of the tribal casino, Lugar, a sophomore, has become a fervent advocate of the college.
She and other Native Americans say the best way for their tribes to solve their problems, including poverty and high rates of drug use and suicide, is through higher education. On Standing Rock, one of the nation’s poorest reservations, 43 percent of people lived in poverty in 2012, according to Census figures—three times the national average. Meanwhile, only 15 percent had bachelor’s degrees, compared to more than 30 percent of all Americans.
There are 32 accredited tribal colleges and at least five non-accredited schools offering associate, bachelor’s, and even some master’s degrees. Tribal college advocates say that the schools give opportunities to students in sprawling, geographically isolated Native communities and that their mission is broader than producing degrees. Many offer language classes to all those living on reservations to help prevent Native languages from going extinct; they also work with local businesses and attempt to address social problems on the reservation.
But despite getting more than $100 million a year in federal funding—including grants low-income students use to pay tuition—tribal colleges often have abysmal success rates. The average percentage of students who earn four-year degrees within six years (or two-year degrees within three years) at these schools is only 20 percent, according to a Hechinger Report analysis of federal graduation data—one third the national average and half the rate of Native students at non-tribal schools. These statistics only include first-time, full-time students, but at some tribal colleges, fewer than one in 10 of them ever finish.
"There’s not a lot of value for the student or for the tribes or the economies where they are," says Tom Burnett, a former Montana state senator who has been critical of tribal colleges.
The schools, which largely allow anyone to attend, say their poor outcomes are largely due to the many shortcomings students face before college even begins, including poor preparation in primary and secondary schools. Less than 70 percent of Native students graduate from high school, according to research by the U.S. Department of Education.
"The dilemma that we’re facing is we’re open admissions," said Thomas Shortbull, president of Oglala Lakota College on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. "We do have a major problem with our students’ [preparedness]."
College accountability advocates are sympathetic to this argument—but only to a point.
"You can’t just say, 'That college has opened its doors wide and it has a low graduation rate, therefore it’s terrible,'" says Mark Schneider, vice president of the American Institutes for Research. "On the other hand, you can’t just say, ‘What do you expect?’"
Schneider and others argue that taxpayers spending tens of millions on tribal colleges and universities deserve to get more for their money.
"In higher education the federal government has essentially had a hands-off approach to their federal investment," says Mary Nguyen Barry, a policy analyst at Education Reform Now and co-author of Tough Love: Bottom-Line Quality Standards for Colleges, who says the government should try to help low-performing schools improve their graduation rates. If they can’t, Barry says, they should be cut off.
Struggling tribal schools would likely welcome extra support. Congress sets tribal college funding and is authorized by federal law to give schools a maximum of $8,000 per student. But in reality the schools get $5,850 per student on average. And that funding can be used only for Native American students; nearly a fifth of those enrolled don’t identify as Native. Howard University, a historically black college, by comparison averages more than $20,000 per student from the federal government.
"We want to see that the federal government is supporting our tribal colleges and universities as they are supporting any other minority-serving institution or state institution," says Victoria Vasques, former director of the White House Initiative on Tribal Colleges under President George W. Bush.
But Burnett says the better way of calculating this is by looking at the cost per degree awarded, not the cost per enrolled student. For example, the tribal Institute of American Indian Arts in New Mexico spends $504,000 for every degree it confers, he says—more than Harvard University or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Officials at the school, when contacted, would not comment about these costs.
In 2011, President Barack Obama signed an executive order creating the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education, which has supported programs to teach Native languages, including those at tribal colleges, and focused on informing tribal college administrators of grant opportunities. In a June speech at Standing Rock, Obama spoke of the need for the federal government to support economic and education development on reservations.
Treaties between Indian tribes and the United States require the federal government to pay for education on reservations. Originally, this was taken to mean K-12 schools, but that assumption was questioned in the 1960s, according to Shortbull. It was around that time that Shortbull graduated from high school and was one of 20 students in his class to go on to the University of South Dakota. Four years later, he said, only two of them had earned degrees. "Our elders on the reservation said that this was unacceptable," he said. "Why couldn’t we create a college to educate our own people?"
By 1975, elders from tribes around the country were lobbying Congress, and the first tribal colleges began to open. Today, they collectively enroll nearly a tenth of Native Americans who attend colleges and universities nationwide.
At Shortbull’s college, the most popular degrees offered are nursing and elementary education, two of the biggest careers in Pine Ridge. Nearly two-thirds of nurses on the reservation are graduates of Oglala Lakota, as are about 45 percent of the teachers, according to Shortbull. But many students struggle to make it past their first year. Two-thirds arrive at Oglala Lakota needing at least one remedial class in math or English to make up for material they should’ve learned in primary and secondary school but didn’t. Of those, two-thirds never get any further. In 2012, only 12 percent of Oglala Lakota students graduated after six years, according to federal data.
Part of the problem is that there aren’t many jobs on reservations, meaning even college graduates can easily be unemployed, says Stephanie Sorbel, who manages the college’s campus center in Kyle, one of the reservation’s largest towns. Anti-drug and alcohol messages painted on plywood flank the main road into Kyle, and suicide-prevention notices hang outside every room of the Oglala Lakota center.
From the parking lot, Sorbel can point to nearly all of Kyle’s employment opportunities. There are a few jobs requiring a college education at the health clinic up the road and at the daycare center on the campus. Tanka, a buffalo meat snack company, is headquartered in Kyle, but openings there are rare. There is one sign of growth, though: Some Oglala Lakota grads just opened a movie theater.
Despite his school’s low success rate, Shortbull says, its existence is vital. "Without tribal colleges, who would try to help these people?"
Like Lugar, many Native American students choose tribal colleges because they’re more convenient than other higher-education institutions and they feel more comfortable staying on the reservation.
"History tells us that if we didn’t have the colleges here many of our students would go off [the reservation] and they wouldn’t do well," Sitting Bull College President Laurel Vermillion said, adding that the majority of her students transfer there from an off-the-reservation school.
But Burnett argues that attending low-performing schools won’t help students. "Going back to a safe harbor that leads you nowhere is no solution."
This story was produced in collaboration with The Hechinger Report.