Tribal Colleges and Universities

2 January 2017 In Factsheets

Tribal Colleges and Universities

Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) are institutions that foster American Indian culture, language and tradition and serve a diverse group of 100,000 individuals each year in academic and community-based programs. TCUs are funded primarily through Title III of the Higher Education Act, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Education, and the Tribally Controlled College or University Assistance Act of 1978, which is administered by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. TCU funds allow institutions to purchase new scientific equipment, build libraries, educate students on tribal public policy, provide counseling services to improve financial and economic literacy of students, improve facilities for internet use, support faculty development, establish or improve a program of teacher education with emphasis on teaching Indian children and establish community outreach programs that encourage Indian children to pursue postsecondary education.

There are currently 37 designated TCUs in the United States, the vast majority of which are located in the Midwest and Southwest. Of these 37 TCUs, 34 are Title-IV eligible and accredited by mainstream accreditation organizations. TCUs are chartered by tribal governments and serve students from more than 230 federally-recognized tribes.

In 1968, the Navajo Nation established the first tribally controlled college, now known as Diné College. While TCUs started as two-year institutions, as of 2014, 12 Title-IV eligible TCUs offered bachelor’s degrees and a handful offered master’s degrees.

In general, TCUs have open admission practices and most are located on reservations. While they vary in size, focus and location, individual tribal identity is deeply embedded in every institution. They are often the only postsecondary option for students in some of the most rural and poorest communities and, as such, they tend to offer a broad range of social services to meet student needs.


  • The 37 TCUs serve about 28,000 full- or part-time students annually.
  • In Fall 2014, the 34 Title-IV eligible TCUs enrolled 17,879 students, an increase from 13,680 students in Fall 2000.
  • Of these nearly 18,000 students, 79% were considered American Indian/Alaska Natives, a percentage that has been increasing annually.
  • 7% of all American Indian college students attended a TCU in the fall of 2010.
  • Many American Indian students are non-traditional students, which means that they tend to be older than the average college student, have dependents and work full-time. TCUs are designed to provide the flexibility these students need to be successful.
  • In Fall 2011, more than 50% of TCU students were over the age of 25.
  • In 2012, 35% of TCU students were single parents, 63% were female and 40% attended on a part-time basis.


  • The 34 Title-IV eligible TCUs awarded 1,266 associates degrees and 295 bachelor’s degrees to American Indians/Alaska Natives in 2013-14.
  • The TCUs that offer bachelor’s degrees conferred 88% of all bachelor’s degrees earned by American Indian/Alaska Native students in 2012.
  • TCUs conferred 78.5% of all associate’s degrees earned by American Indian/Alaska Native students in 2012.
  • On average, 86% of TCU students complete their chosen program of study while fewer than 10% of American Indian students at non-TCU schools complete a degree.
  • TCUs’ academic programs often target fields that are of particular interest to American Indian students, including fields related to tribal economic development.
  • TCUs strive to keep tuition low. In 2013-2014, the average net price of a TCU was $7,016 per year, compared to the average net price of $9,574 for community colleges nationwide.
    • Still, given that 58% of TCU students qualify for a Pell grant, compared to 39% of students nationwide, even low tuition prices present financial barriers.
  • Many TCUs provide community services to their local populations. These services include diabetes education and prevention, HIV education, daycare and child health centers, libraries, computer centers, indigenous research, language preservation classes, community activities and lifelong learning programs. 


“Tribal College and University Funding: Tribal Sovereignty at the Intersection of Federal, State, and Local Funding.” American Council on Education and Center for Policy Research and Strategy, May 2016.

American Indian College Fund, 2017.

The American Indian Higher Education Consortium, 2017.

“Digest of Education Statistics.” National Center for Education Statistics.

“The Path of Many Journeys: The Benefits of Higher Education for Native People and Communities.” Institute for Higher Education Policy, February 2007.

“Redefining Success: How Tribal Colleges and Universities Build Nations, Strengthen Sovereignty, and Persevere Through Challenges.” University of Pennsylvania Center for MSIs.

“White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education.” U.S. Department of Education.

National Indian Education Association.

Updated January 2017