Tribal colleges thrive despite low resources, Penn report shows

A report by Penn’s Center for Minority Serving Institutions (CMSI) shows that despite scant resources, tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) have grown to 37 institutions in the United States since opening in the late 1960s.

The report, “Redefining Success: How Tribal Colleges and Universities Build Nations, Strengthen Sovereignty, and Persevere Through Challenges,” finds that TCUs have found unique ways to preserve Indigenous culture and educate its nearly 30,000 students while the schools face economic challenges and federal and state funding cuts.

TCUs are relying more and more on philanthropy, says Ginger Stull, the report’s lead author and an Ed.D. student in the Graduate School of Education.  

Due to the lack of resources at the schools, which serve mainly American Indian and Alaska Native students, most TCUs do not have an in-house fundraising team.

“They often don’t have professional grant writers and grant-writing support that a lot of mainstream institutions do,” Stull says. “It’s up to staff and faculty to try and find funding every year rather than having a reliable funding source.”

The report recommends that TCUs, such as Salish Kootenai College in Pablo, Mont., should not be measured with the same criteria as other colleges and universities because they serve a distinctive purpose in sustaining communities and preserving tribal culture and language.

“I would say that they’re similar in many ways to the purpose that historically black colleges served prior to integration of majority institutions, in that they were community centers and they included day care centers,” says Marybeth Gasman, co-author of the report and the director of Penn’s CMSI. “Tribal colleges were places of worship, as well, because of tribal communal activities. They were places for meetings. These are things that historically black colleges did and still do, but tribal colleges are continuing to do that at a pretty deep level.”

TCUs, all but three of which are located on reservations, also play a significant role in local economic development in their communities through small business programs that help create jobs.

The authors hope the report can be used to show the value of tribal colleges so that funders will be aware of the TCUs and help support them.

“Native Americans are usually an asterisk in a report,” says Gasman. “They make up less than 1 percent of the college population, and some researchers don’t consider Native Americans [in their work] because there aren’t enough of them. For our Center, it’s very important to do work also related to Native Americans and uplift Native American voices, as well.”

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