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Remote Learning Roadblocks Threaten Enrollment For Indigenous Students, Colleges

A sign welcomes people to the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, home to the Aaniiih and Nakoda, or Gros Ventre and Assiniboine, tribes.
Nora Saks
A sign welcomes people to the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, home to the Aaniiih and Nakoda, or Gros Ventre and Assiniboine, tribes.

Lack of internet access and financial pressures are raising concerns about a potential increased rate of Native American college dropouts. As classes move online during the coronavirus pandemic, tribal colleges report more students are withdrawing or aren’t participating.

Carole Falcon-Chandler is the president of the Aaniiih Nakoda College on the Fort Belknap Reservation. She said the small school of about 155 students has seen a decrease in enrollment.

“And we already have a total of 17 students who withdrew," Falcon-Chandler said.

Falcon-Chandler says most of those students were already struggling academically before the coronavirus pandemic hit. But she added that limited internet access on the reservation is making it more difficult for all students to attend online classes. In 2018, the U.S. Census Bureau found a little over half of reservations' residents have access to high-speed internet.

“I really think it has to do with the online, I know it is with the online teaching, because we’ve never had that before," Falcon-Chandler said.

Little Big Horn College on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation is seeing the same issue. President David Yarlott recently surveyed his staff to see how the transition to online learning was going.

“On the lower end, one of the faculty was explaining that the response rate from the students was at about 30 percent, whether it’s responding to the email or submitting homework," he said.

Federal and state funding to tribal colleges is based on student numbers. If students drop out or don’t return next fall, tribal schools stand to lose major chucks of their funding. Aaniiih Nakoda College already stands to lose roughly $400,000 from just 17 students dropping out.

Montana is home to seven tribal colleges, the most in any state, according to a review of tribal colleges from Montana's Legislative Services Division. That review says the colleges were established to help tribes address their workforce needs, maintain their culture and provide educational opportunity for tribal members on the reservations.

Around $200,000 in aid is coming to each college from the CARES Act recently passed in Congress. The American Indian College Fund, which provides scholarships to Native students across the country, is concerned that student dropout numbers will outpace that relief funding.

“If you lose a student, you might be losing the equivalent of $15,000 to $20,000 dollars in funding if you lose 10 students and you might lose a couple hundred thousand dollars in funding," CEO Cheryl Crazy Bull said. "And if you're an institution that doesn't have a cushion, that's a lot of money."

But Crazy Bull is worried about Native student enrollment numbers in higher ed more broadly, outside of tribal colleges. Crazy Bull says Native Americans account for 1% of undergraduate students nationally, and she doesn’t want their overall slice of that pie to grow smaller because of the pandemic.

That’s why Crazy Bull’s organization is collecting emergency funding to help students enrolled in tribal and state colleges pay rent and utilities, as well as buy food and internet access when available. Crazy Bull points to a 2020 survey from the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice that found Native American and Indigenous students enrolled in college are more likely to face housing insecurity than their peers.

“Sixty two percent of tribal college students had experienced food insecurity in the prior month prior to taking the survey, and that food insecurity ranged from worrying about food to not having food," she said.

Crazy Bull explained the economic shutdown during the coronavirus pandemic is likely exacerbating those pressures.

Celina Gray is a member of the Little Shell Tribe, and is navigating the coronavirus outbreak as a University of Montana grad student living in university housing with five-person family. Gray has been able to maintain her job on campus and has scholarship money from the American Indian College Fund to help pay the rent and other bills for now. But Gray said her family faces some economic uncertainty as the summer approaches.

“It might be sustainable for another month or two, but getting into the summertime, we depend on dad for firefighting," she said. "So how is this going to affect firefighting, right?”

That uncertainty is piled on top of her role as mom, and now teacher, to two children in kindergarten. Her roles are cutting into time for her own schoolwork. Gray said while the coronavirus pandemic is a new experience for many, Native students regularly face these kinds of challenges.

"Things like a food shortage, or not knowing where you’re going to be staying, having to make difficult choices for your education, is not a new thing for Native students," she said.

Her message to her fellow students? Hang in there, and don’t give up.

Correction: A previous version of this story misquoted American Indian College Fund CEO Cheryl Crazy Bull on the amount of funding tribal colleges lose when a student drops out. The story also misreported the gender of Celina Gray's twin children.

Aaron graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Journalism in 2015 after interning at Minnesota Public Radio. He landed his first reporting gig in Wrangell, Alaska where he enjoyed the remote Alaskan lifestyle and eventually moved back to the road system as the KBBI News Director in Homer, Alaska. He joined the MTPR team in 2019. Aaron now reports on all things in northwest Montana and statewide health care.
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