Commitment to Building Prosperous Nations: Tribal colleges take aim against poverty

Feb 15th, 2007 | By | Category: 18-3: Building Prosperity, Features
By Mark Fogarty

FROM PLAN TO FINISH: Turtle Mountain Community College interior building views: The top photo features a railing with a tree branch motif symbolizing the surrounding forest of the site and the middle photo shows the main entry rotunda built of birch wood in an abstraction of the teepee shape. In the lower photo, United Tribes Technical College construction students frame buildings in class. Photo Credits: Jeff Welch, principal architect at Jiran Architects (building designer) provided the TMCC building photos. Dennis Neumann, the director of Public Information at UTTC, provided the construction class photo.

Tribal colleges pay a lot of attention to their economic impact on the communities that charter them. The need for this is clear. The “3-year average poverty rate for American Indians and Alaska Natives [from 1998-2000] was 25.9% higher than for any other race groups,” according to a report by the U.S. Census Bureau cited by U.S. Senator John Kerry at a 2005 Congressional hearing.

The Massachusetts Democrat was questioning proposed budget cuts for the Small Business Administration’s Native American programs (including at least one affiliated with tribal colleges). He noted that tribal communities face “unemployment as high as 70% and poverty rates well above the national average.”

Tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) have taken aim against this chronic economic imbalance. Although they do not always report their efforts, they seek to promote culturally appropriate development and to improve the financial situations not only of their students but the tribal matrix they come from.

Tribal colleges benefit their local communities both directly and indirectly. TCJ looked at the efforts of five in different regions of the country: Northwest Indian College, United Tribes Technical College, Salish Kootenai College, Sitting Bull College, and Leech Lake Tribal College.

A study by the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) and the Institute for Higher Education Policy identifies various ways that tribal colleges impact their communities: direct spending and employment, workforce development, business attraction, small business and entrepreneurship development, technology transfer, leadership, and communication linkages.

The 2000 study (“Tribal Colleges’ Contributions to Local Economic Development”) says that tribal colleges share these traits with all community colleges.

In addition, the study says, tribal schools “tend to take on a more expansive role in community development. TCUs have two traits unique to themselves. First, “tribal colleges integrate cultural relevance into their development efforts, as tribal traditions and values permeate the curricula and learning styles of the colleges.”

Second, “tribal colleges have a special responsibility to help local communities understand the nature of choices between different types of economic growth, given the specific history of economic development on reservations.”

Reporting back to tribal communities

The degree to which tribal colleges report these efforts and successes to their local constituencies varies. Northwest Indian College (NWIC, Bellingham, WA), for instance, has written a stringent set of reporting requirements into its strategic plan (see sidebar).

Not all tribal schools are as transparent, even when the prosperity of both students and the surrounding community is a top priority. At Leech Lake Tribal College (LLTC) in Minnesota, President Leah J. Carpenter (White Earth Band of Ojibwe) states, “At this point, there isn’t any formal reporting we do to the local community. I would like to start—possibly at this year’s end or at the end of this fiscal year—running an ad in the local newspapers briefly detailing the amount of money we put into the community.”

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