Indigenous Higher Education: Asserting an Inherent Right to Education

Often when I speak before an audience, I start with a land acknowledgement, recognizing that all land on which the U.S. was built is indigenous land and calling attention to the particular people on whose land we are convening. This very act exemplifies the difference between Native American students and other racial and ethnic groups. American Indian Tribes and Alaska Natives are sovereign nations deeply tied to land and place. Today’s 573 sovereign nations[1] have special government to government relationships with the U.S. and agreements which are maintained through more than 400 treaties. Through these treaties, Indian nations ceded the land (on which many state and private universities are located) in exchange for retaining certain inherent rights. Those rights included the right to an education.[2]

Higher education credentials are foundational to prosperity for indigenous nations. To ensure equitable access to and funding for higher education for Native American students, one has to understand tribal sovereignty; the role tribal colleges and universities play in healing historical trauma and reversing federal assimilationist policies to educate our people and preserve our languages, traditions, and cultures; and how tribal sovereignty makes the funding model and policy context of tribal colleges and universities unique.

Historically, higher education attainment amongst American Indians and Alaska Natives (AIAN) has been lower than that of other groups. U.S. Census figures show that education attainment by AIAN is less than half that of their peers, with only 14.3% of AIAN people age 25 or older holding a bachelor’s degree, compared to 30.9% of the overall population.

TCUs were born of the realization that formal western education, with its goal of assimilating Native peoples into mainstream Anglo culture, was failing its young people who vitally needed a higher education to not only lead tribal businesses and institutions but also to preserve their Nations’ cultures, languages, and values.

TCUs curriculum is based in place and is inextricable from Native culture and allows Native students to succeed using their cultural lifeways. In the American Indian College Fund and Gallup survey report, Alumni of Tribal Colleges and Universities Better Their Communities, Native TCU college graduates stated they enjoy significant benefits over college students attending other academic institutions in significant ways, including post-college career, college funding, interactions with faculty, and well-being.

Although this is good news, tribally chartered and controlled higher education institutions are not enough to ensure equitable access to higher education for Native students. There must also be equitable funding and education policies in place to ensure that TCUs, primarily located in and serving rurally based students, are sustainable; and that Native students are financially and culturally able to access systems of higher education.

Advocates can support Native students’ equitable access to a TCU education by urging legislators to provide needed funding for these uniquely successful institutions (and often the only higher education institution serving their communities).[3] The American Indian Higher Education Consortium has outlined its legislation and appropriations requests for 2020 which provide a comprehensive approach to essential federal funding.[4]

Because TCUs are tribally chartered by Indian nations, most receive little or no state funding and rely primarily on federal funding. In addition, resources needed to serve rural communities are often greater than those needed to serve urban communities; for example, transportation and broadband access are two of many infrastructure issues that contribute to inequitable access to a higher education for Native students.[5] Other inequitable funding issues include the fact that TCUs are open enrollment institutions and TCUs do not get funding for non-Native students.

TCUs are also at a disadvantage with other funding sources. Because they primarily serve economically disadvantaged Indian reservations, they do not enjoy wealthy private endowments. TCUs also absorb the cost of tuition and fees to allow access to their students; according to the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC)[6], the average tuition and fees at TCUs is $3,592 for AY 2019-20. Seventeen (48%) of TCUs fall below this mark. Although artificially low tuition ensures students who want an education have access to one, it also impacts the TCUs’ sustainability. 

Advocates can also support federal funding for TCUs for Native American language research, curriculum development and design, graduate-level degree program development and certification, facilities upgrades, technology upgrades, Internet access, and more. These initiatives ensure necessary programs are in place to provide opportunities for place-based research, cultural and language preservation, and resources to staff and fund TCUs and funding from states.[7]

Advocacy can also create equitable access for Native students at non-TCUs. These institutions can provide Native students with scholarships, tuition support, and emergency aid for those who may be experiencing food or housing insecurity; remedial and intervention services to remove institutional and social barriers to academic and social success; set out intentional paths to post-secondary access including targeted recruitment, bridge programs, and dual enrollment programs; create a welcoming campus environment and visibility of Native students through cultural support, enrichment, curricular review and modification to include Native history and contemporary perspectives; publish Native student data concerning recruitment, matriculation, retention, and career paths; dismantle structural racism and symbolic representation; and provide Native representation through partnerships with tribes in advisory and leadership roles. For more information, please see the College Fund’s report Creating Visibility and Healthy Learning Environments for Native Americans in Higher Education.

College Fund reports and other informative research about American Indian and Alaska Native education and TCUs can be found at


[1] 573 tribes represent federally recognized tribes, there are many tribes that are state recognized as well as numerous unrecognized tribes throughout what is now the United States.

[2] Harjo, S. ED, (2014). Nation to Nation: Treaties between the United States and American Indians. Washington DC: Smithsonian Books

[3] Total number of community members served by TCUs, AY 2018-19: 14,000; full- and part-time Native enrollment, fall 2019 (preliminary): 13,088. Source: American Indian Higher Education Consortium.

[4] FY 2021 AIHEC legislative advocacy opportunities Overview: Higher Education Act Reauthorization for Tribal Colleges and Universities

FY 2021 Agriculture Appropriations Requests

FY2021 Commerce and Justice; Energy and Water Development Appropriations Requests,

FY2021 Commerce and Justice; Energy and Water Development Appropriations Requests,

FY2021 Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Requests,

[5] Center for Community College Student Engagement. (2019). Preserving culture and planning for the future: An exploration of student experiences at tribal colleges. Austin, TX: The University of Texas at Austin, College of Education, Department of Educational Leadership and Policy, Program in Higher Education Leadership

[6] The first six tribal colleges founded the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) to maintain common standards of quality in American Indian education; support the development of new TCUs; promote and assist in developing legislation to support American Indian higher education; and encourage greater participation by Native peoples to develop higher education policy.

[7] Federal appropriations per Indian Student Count at TCUs, AY 2019-20:  $7,356. Source: AIHEC.