Tribal Colleges and Universities

A primer on tribal colleges and universities (TCUs).

Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), also known as tribally controlled colleges and universities, or TCCUs, are institutions of higher education formally controlled, sanctioned or chartered by the governing body of an American Indian tribe or tribes where Native American culture, language and tradition are fostered. [i]TCUs serve a diverse group of 88,000 students in academic and community-based programs and actively work to preserve Native American languages, promote tribal sovereignty and further economic growth for Native American people. Because Native Americans (both American Indians and Alaska Natives) comprise only 1 percent of the U.S. undergraduate population and less than 1 percent of the graduate student population, these students are often left out of postsecondary research and data reporting due to small sample size.[ii] What data is available indicates that, while 42 percent of Native Americans have attempted some form of higher education, only 13 percent have earned a degree.[iii]

After years of federal government control over tribal education at the elementary, secondary and postsecondary levels, tribal leaders began a political movement known as self-determination in the 1960s. Beginning with Dine College[iv], founded in 1968, tribally controlled colleges grew out of this movement, establishing themselves as institutions that would sustain and grow tribal culture.

The vast majority of designated TCUs are located on reservations in the Midwest and Southwest (see figure below).[v] TCUs are chartered by tribal governments and serve students from more than 230 federally recognized tribes. All TCUs have open admission practices and, while they vary in size, focus and location, individual tribal identity is deeply embedded in every institution. Often TCUs are the only postsecondary option for students in rural and poor communities and, as such, they tend to offer a broad range of social services to meet student needs.

graphic1_tcu (2)

TCU Funding

Because tribal colleges are predominantly located on American Indian reservations with high percentages of residents living in poverty, local property taxes are not collected to support them and state governments are not obligated to provide any financial support. Instead, TCUs are funded primarily through Title III of the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) administered by the U.S. Department of Education, and the Tribally Controlled College or University Assistance Act (TCCUAA) of 1978, administered by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. In 1994, The U.S. Department of Education allowed TCUs land-grant status, which provided access to additional funding sources.[vi]

In FY 2015, tribal colleges received a total of $60 million through HEOA, an increase of more than $10 million from FY 2014.[vii] Funds allow institutions to purchase new scientific equipment, build libraries, educate students on tribal public policy, provide counseling services to improve students’ financial and economic literacy, improve facilities for internet use, support faculty development, establish or improve a program of teacher education with emphasis on teaching American Indian children and establish community outreach programs that encourage American Indian children to pursue postsecondary education.

Additionally, the TCCUAA authorized $8,000 in federal money for each Native American student enrolled in a TCU. However TCCUAA has never been fully funded – it has hovered around $5,000 per student for years.[viii] Additionally, funds are not given for non-Native American students despite the fact that 20 percent of TCU students are not Native Americans.

Types of Institutions

While TCUs started as two-year institutions, 13 now offer bachelor’s degrees and five offer master’s degrees. In total, TCUs offer master’s degrees in four fields, bachelor’s degrees in 46 fields, associate degrees in 193 fields and certificates in 119 fields.[ix]

Curriculum at most TCUs focuses on the skills and knowledge needed to promote Native American nation building and strengthen tribal sovereignty. Twenty-eight TCUs offer American Indian Studies degree programs, a course of study that has become increasingly popular over the last 15 years.[x] The graphic below shows the popularity of majors at TCUs, with business, health care and vocational programs comprising the top three.


Even as TCUs expand their degree programs, they strive to keep tuition low. In 2013-2014, the average cost of attendance at a TCU was $14,168 per year[xi], including room, board, books, tuition and fees. Non-TCU public four-year institutions averaged tuitions over $18,391 in that same year[xii].

Enrollment and Degree Attainment

The number of Native American students enrolling in institutions of higher education is growing across the board. From 2000 to 2012, the number of Native American undergraduate students attending all colleges and universities increased by nearly 70 percent. Many of these students chose to enroll at a TCU.[xiii] In 2010, more than 30,000 Native American students enrolled in TCUs full or part time, meaning that nearly 80 percent of the TCU population was Native American. TCUs are responsible for the majority of bachelor’s degrees earned by Native American students; they conferred 88 percent of all bachelor’s degrees earned by Native American students in 2012.[xiv]

Native American students are more likely to be older, have dependents and work full time than other students; more than 50 percent of students at TCUs are over the age of 25. In 2012, 35 percent of TCU students were single parents, 63 percent were female and 40 percent attended on a part-time basis.[xv] TCUs attempt to provide the flexibility these students need to be successful.


Critics of tribal colleges ask why, with over $100 million in annual funding from the federal government, these institutions do not have better outcomes.[xvi] On average, 20 percent of Native American students at TCUs earn four-year degrees within six years or two-year degrees within three years, one third the national average and half the rate of Native American students at non-tribal schools. At some tribal colleges, fewer than 10 percent of students ever graduate.

Advocates of TCUs respond to this criticism by emphasizing the unique obstacles many Native American students face.[xvii] Close to 30 percent of all Native Americans lived in poverty in 2010; the highest poverty rate of any racial group in the U.S. More than 33 percent of Native American children live in poverty and nearly 80 percent of students at TCUs receive a Pell grant, indicating financial need.[xviii] Financial barriers are not the only obstacle Native American students face. Native students who enroll in higher education face serious commutes, averaging between 30 and 100 miles to reach their closest college or university. While they may be eager for a college education, many are unprepared for college work. On average, 74 percent of Native American students at TCUs require remedial math and 50 percent require remedial reading or writing.[xix]

This context is critical when looking at completion rates, a common metric to assess the quality of an institution but perhaps one lacking in nuance for tribal colleges. There is reason to believe that TCU students are contributing positively to their communities, as outlined below.

Successes and Impact

The impact of tribal colleges can be seen through their commitment to access, their role in improving local economies, their efforts to cultivate and maintain diverse faculty and their outreach to the broader community.

  • Access: TCUs have kept tuition rates low to serve a population that might otherwise be unable to pursue postsecondary education. In 2013-2014, the average cost of attendance at a TCU was $14,168 per year, including room, board, books, tuition and fees. By comparison, the average cost of a public four-year institution per year in 2013-2014 was $18,391 and the average cost of a private four-year institution per year was $40,917.[xx]
  • Economic Growth: The contributions TCUs have made in local communities by creating jobs and boosting economies is significant. In 2013, the College of Menominee National added $37 million to the local economy, provided 404 jobs and generated over $800,000 in tax revenue. Additionally, tribal colleges are working hard to meet workforce demands. For example, TCUs in North Dakota are working to fill the estimated 17,000 unfilled jobs at the Bakken Formation, one of the largest single deposits of oil and natural gas found in the United States, with workers who possess the technical knowledge of resource extraction, as well as the knowledge and appreciation for tribal philosophies regarding nature and environmental protection.[xxi]
  • Faculty Diversity: TCUs boast a robust and diverse faculty. Nationwide, Native Americans and Alaska Natives comprise less than 1 percent of faculty members. At TCUs, 46 percent of all faculty are Native American and Alaska Natives. This percentage doubled between 2003 and 2010.[xxii] The importance of American Indian faculty cannot be understated; they can challenge discriminatory scholarship and practices, stimulate research on indigenous issues and assist colleges and universities in recruiting and retaining Native American students. In addition to faculty, 71 percent of TCU administrators are American Indian.
  • Community Outreach: TCUs provide services to their local populations outside of the campus community. These services include diabetes education and prevention, HIV education, daycare and health centers, libraries, computer centers, indigenous research, language preservation classes, community activities and lifelong learning programs.

Future Growth

Community advocates have many ideas on how to strengthen TCUs.[xxiii] Most focus on acknowledging what makes TCUs unique and providing adequate resources to allow TCUs to serve their communities in a culturally sensitive and appropriate way. Advocates point to the following ways to improve higher education outcomes for Native American students and to strengthen TCUs’ capacity to serve them:

  • Increase Funding: Provide TCUs with the full amount of federal funding authorized under current law annually adjusted for student enrollment increases and inflation. As noted, the Tribally Controlled Community College Assistance Act (1978) authorizes $8,000 per Native American student per year, but appropriated funds hover around $5,000 per Native American student per year.
  • Provide More Reliable Funding: Establish sustainable funding opportunities for TCUs to apply to their base operating budgets rather than relying on grants, which can be unreliable and inhibit long-term planning and growth.
  • Create Better and More Comprehensive Pathways: Create more early outreach and dual-credit programs for high school students between K-12 and higher education that put students on a college track. Establish transfer agreements between TCUs and four-year institutions that recognize the unique challenges Native American students face. Strengthened agreements would allow students to experience a Native undergraduate education and earn an advanced degree at a non-Native institution.
  • Changes to Accreditation: Consider the possibility of TCUs having their own accrediting body focused on Native American values and “indigenous ways of knowing.” Allow TCUs to accredit themselves to standards they deem culturally appropriate.

Despite their challenges, TCUs work in various ways to support the students they serve and play an important role in Native American student success.

A good demonstration of the role these institutions play in the lives of their students is best told through the voices of their students. The American Indian College Fund collects stories from Native American scholarship recipients regarding their experiences, challenges and successes. One such story is below.

Audra’s Story[xxiv]

Like many Native single mothers, Audra Stonefish knows what it means to struggle. She works hard to put food on the table and teach her children about the importance of their culture while earning top grades as she works towards a college degree in science at Sitting Bull College.

Audra’s academic success makes it look easy, but it’s not. She says that for students living on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, even something as simple as getting to classes is cost-prohibitive for Native students. The college does not have dorms and many students must travel one hour or more each way in a place where most people cannot afford vehicles and gasoline prices are high. The remoteness of a rural Indian reservation also makes it hard to do research and homework, since many students, including Audra, cannot afford a computer or Internet access at home, requiring them to travel to the tribal college to complete assignments.

“Most Native students are going through something that is holding them back whether it is the lack of transportation, funding for tuition, or the lack of a computer to do homework at home,” she says.

Audra is studying the health benefits of the wild prairie turnip, a plant that was traditionally harvested by the Lakota and Dakota people. Audra hopes to carry on her research into her graduate school studies.

[i] White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education.

[ii] National Center for Education Statistics: The Condition of Education. 

[iii] National Center for Education Statistics: The Condition of Education.

[iv] Dine College

[v] American Indian College Fund

[vi] White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education

[vii] White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education

[viii] American Indian Higher Education Consortium

[ix] Redefining Success: How Tribal Colleges and Universities Build Nations, Strengthen Sovereignty and Persevere through Challenges

[x] Redefining Success: How Tribal Colleges and Universities Build Nations, Strengthen Sovereignty and Persevere through Challenges

Data source: American Indian Higher Education Consortium

[xi] Redefining Success: How Tribal Colleges and Universities Build Nations, Strengthen Sovereignty and Persevere through Challenges

[xii] American Indian College Fund

[xiii] Redefining Success: How Tribal Colleges and Universities Build Nations, Strengthen Sovereignty and Persevere through Challenges

[xiv] American Indian Higher Education Consortium

[xv] National Center for Education Statistics: The Condition of Education

[xvi]The Failure of Tribal Schools

[xvii] American Indian College Fund

[xviii] American Indian College Fund

[xix] American Indian College Fund

[xx] Trends in College Pricing

[xxi] Redefining Success: How Tribal Colleges and Universities Build Nations, Strengthen Sovereignty and Persevere through Challenges

[xxii] Redefining Success: How Tribal Colleges and Universities Build Nations, Strengthen Sovereignty and Persevere through Challenges

[xxiii] Redefining Success: How Tribal Colleges and Universities Build Nations, Strengthen Sovereignty and Persevere through Challenges

[xxiv] American Indian College Fund


Updated March 2016