NSI Summit July 26-27 sparks progress toward budding alliance

  • Year Published : 2018
  • Month Published : July

The first annual Native American-Serving, Nontribal Institutions (NASNTI) National Summit was held July 26-27 at the Westin Denver Downtown Hotel, attracting nearly 100 higher education leaders to discuss, debate, and problem-solve issues unique to 24 Native-Serving colleges and universities, and to the tens of thousands of American Indian and Alaska Native students who attend these off-reservation institutions.

Senior academic and administrative leaders from 17 (more than 70 percent of all) federally designated Native-Serving Institutions (NSIs)—spanning geography from Alaska to North Carolina—attended the Summit. Also sharing insights were representatives from the U.S. Department of Education, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, the Tribal Education Departments National Assembly, and others key to the national conversation about equity and student success.

The Summit was the inaugural event in connection with a new partnership between the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) and Lumina Foundation. In December, Lumina granted WICHE $990,000 to organize an alliance to help NSIs develop networks, speak with a strong and common voice on legislative and policy matters, and tailor strategies to help their students succeed.

As part of the Lumina commitment, 11 NSIs have been awarded $10,000 planning grants to pursue homegrown projects on their campuses—ranging from culturally relevant programming, to faculty mentoring, to other high-impact practices. Several such grant-assisted projects were outlined in panels and at a poster session at which academic and administrative leaders each shared particular circumstances and strategies in effect at their institutions, all far removed from major metropolitan areas and many facing community challenges such as economic instability and uncertain climates of state and federal support.

The Summit also saw the release of a new survey that establishes baseline data on Native-student graduation and retention rates, barriers to success, and other key metrics related to success at their NSIs: view this survey here. Key takeaways from this survey included:

  • Graduation rates for American Indian/Alaska Native students at responding NSIs lagged similar rates for White students by 10 percentage points at two-year schools, and 8 at four-year schools
  • Similar gaps were seen in retention rates (8 percentage points for two-year schools, and 6 for four-year schools

Taken together, these activities align toward the broader goal of improving higher education access and success for the 5.2 million Americans who identify as American Indian or Alaska Native. Though tribal colleges (based on Indian reservations and chartered by tribal governments) have a group systematically addressing their priorities at the Federal level, 90 percent of Native students attend college off the reservation—many of their challenges are common to those of tribal colleges, yet their support base is splintered. Colleges whose Native-student population exceeds 10 percent qualify federally as NSIs and are eligible for federal Title III grants to support their service to underserved student populations.

WICHE Project Director Ken Pepion, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe who recently served as associate vice president of academic affairs at Fort Lewis College (one of 24 NSIs) in Durango, Colo., says the need to improve higher education outcomes for Native students goes beyond typical societal challenges such as lower incomes and higher unemployment—ramifications include “the loss of an educated tribal citizenry who will contribute to our tribal nations, our sovereignty, and the health of our tribes.”

Fewer than 24 percent of Native students earn an associate’s degree or higher, barely half the rate of White students. Of Native students who do successfully reach college, just one-third graduate within six years; this rate drops below one-fifth when isolated to the public two-year school category that constitutes half of NSIs.

Courtney Brown, vice president of strategy at Lumina Foundation, cited data that indicates that since the bottom of the Great Recession, 12 million jobs have been created yet 99 percent of them require a postsecondary credential—one reason why Lumina’s Goal 2025 aims to increase the proportion of American adults with such credentials to 60 percent by 2025.

“The American dream isn’t possible without a postsecondary degree, and opportunities for postsecondary success are unequally shared,” Brown said. “At Lumina we say equity isn’t an important component of the work. Equity is the work.”

Data may suggest a challenging story for Native populations pursuing college attainment—but data does not fully tell that story. That multifaceted tale—which includes a history of repatriation and genocide in pursuit of autonomy and dignity—was also told at the summit, and more chapters remain to be told at WICHE/Lumina NSI activities in the coming years. As Quinton Roman Nose, of the Tribal Education Departments National Assembly, reminded those who came to Denver for the summit, “This used to be Cheyenne Arapaho country. Welcome to the land of the Cheyenne Arapaho.”

About WICHE: Established by Congress in 1953, WICHE is one of four regional interstate compacts in the U.S. WICHE’s programs include the Western Undergraduate Exchange, which saves more than 40,000 students more than $375 million annually in tuition; a report, Knocking at the College Door, that’s the nation’s preeminent resource for demography projections of college-age students; and WCET, the leading U.S. convener for innovation in technology-enhanced education. Visit wiche.edu to learn more.

About Lumina Foundation: Lumina Foundation is an independent, private foundation in Indianapolis that is committed to making opportunities for learning beyond high school available to all. Lumina envisions a system that is easy to navigate, delivers fair results, and meets the nation’s need for talent through a broad range of credentials. The Foundation’s goal is to prepare people for informed citizenship and for success in a global economy. Visit luminafoundation.org to learn more.


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