We Need to Talk About Indigenous College Students
This post was originally published by First Peoples Worldwide in 2014. The advice in the included infographics came from FPW supporters via social media.
We need to talk about school. Specifically, we need to talk about Native students and the education system – what’s working, what isn’t working, and what we can change.
The new school year is rolling in, meaning that thousands of Native American students will be starting their first year of college, or starting to think about some form of post-secondary education to pursue. It’s an exciting, terrifying time – to be at the beginning of the rest of your life, the time when you traditionally transition from childhood to adulthood. It’s a daunting experience for nearly everyone, but can be particularly challenging for Native students.
Many Indigenous activists and organizations believe in the power of education; However, they don’t necessarily think that needs to be contained to the current Western-style education model. Often, Native students learn best in environments that combine traditional Indigenous knowledge and belief systems with the modern tools they need to succeed in an increasingly competitive world. College isn’t for everybody, but it’s a reality today that it is increasingly difficult to succeed without some form of post-secondary education, including bachelor’s degrees, associates degree, graduate school, apprenticeships, certificates, or trade programs. A full 70% of Native students aspire to post-secondary education – but many feel it is out of their reach. So the question is – how can we best support our students to achieve all that they want to achieve?
Currently, about 13 percent of American Indian/Alaskan Natives have an bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 28 percent of the general American population. About 33 percentof AI/AN females and 24 percent of males ages 18-24 are enrolled in some form of post-secondary education program, but only 41 percent of females and 37 percent of males typically complete their chosen program with six years of starting – about 20 percentage points lower than the white American population.
The challenges to post-secondary education start early in life. Only 52 percent of AI/AN three, four, and five year olds are enrolled in preschool programs – early childhood education has been linked to long-term academic success. 63 percent of Native 8thgraders report never having talked to a counselor about what classes they should take in high school or what to do after they graduate, and only 29 percent of Native 9thgraders have college counselors – compared to a national average of 48 percent. Native students are suspended at higher rates than their white peers, and report greater incidences of drug use and violence at their schools.
Thirty-three percent of Native students live below the poverty line, and 30 percent attend high poverty public high schools – meaning they are likely exposed to fewer opportunities, less academic support, and out-of-date materials and supplies. And of course, the cost of attending college, which averages $15,671 a yearat a tribal college and over $23,000 a year at a public four-year university, is far out of the reach of many. Native students take fewer Advanced Placement classes, and do not take important standardized tests such as the ACT as often as their white peers, meaning their transcripts may appear less competitive to college admissions officers. And with few role models with college degrees, Native students may be further intimidated from applying – about 19 percent of AI/AN children have at least one parent who has a bachelor’s degree.
In Canada, approximately 47 percent of students need a new school, and the majority have been waiting at least ten years for it. Seventy-two percent of First Nations schools have health and safety issues – and 32 percent do not have adequate clean drinking water. Almost half of First Nations households do not have Internet access, 50 percent suffer food insecurity, and the suicide rate among First Nations youth is 5-7 times higher than non-Aboriginal youth. A First Nations child is more likely to go to jail than to graduate high school.
Despite these overwhelming challenges, more and more Native youth are enrolling in college every year, and encouraging others to do the same. Many find comfort, support, and cultural growth through Native student unions and organizations; others find strength through helping younger generations navigate the process. What advice should you give a young Native student?