Forgotten Students American Indian High School Students’ Narratives on College Going Amy Fann

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Archived Informaton

Forgotten Students

American Indian High School Students’ Narratives on College Going

Amy Fann

UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Studies

Prepared for the UC Berkeley Center for the Study of Higher Education

Research Colloquium, May 7, 2004

Funding for this study was generously provided by the UCLA Institute for American Cultures and the UCLA American Indian Studies Center and the

UC Berkeley Center for the Study of Higher Education.


Indigenous leaders are searching for solutions to the overwhelming problems facing their communities in a way that will prepare their people to compete in today’s world, help restore much of what has been lost culturally, protect what remains, and allow them to remain true to their basic or central identity as individuals and as indigenous people. (Stein ,2003, p. 40)
There is an articulated need for higher education in Native Americani nations (AIHEC, 2002; Barfield, 2003; Benally, 2004, Champagne and Goldberg, 2002; Jennings, 2004). Native American students enter the university with their own goals, to acquire skills that are useful for themselves and their community (Jennings, 2004). Tribal nations cautiously look to colleges and universities to prepare tribal citizens for participating in nation building efforts that preserve the political and cultural integrity of their people. Yet, after decades of national, state and institutional level initiatives to increase access to higher education for first-generation and non-traditional students, the college pipeline for American Indians has largely been unaddressed.

American Indian students have the highest high school dropout rates, the lowest academic performance rates, and the lowest college admission and retention rates in the nation (American Council on Education, 2002; Benally, 2004; Stein, 1999). In 1991, according to the Indian Nations at Risk Task Force study: “despite several decades of programs and efforts at both the federal and state level, dropout and achievement for American Indians did not show any marked improvement” (Cleary and Peacock, 1997, p.7).

A decade later in California, 2000 census data showed that attainment of the high school diploma has increased for all race/ethnic groups with the exception of American Indians who experienced a decline of 5.4 percent in the rate of high school completion (Lopez, 2003). In California, American Indian students have a fifty-fifty (49.7%) chance of graduating from high school (Swanson, 2003). Among American Indian students in California who graduate from high school, only 16% graduate with “college ready transcripts,” ii(Greene and Forster, 2003). Nationally, only 17% of Native American students who graduate from high school attend any level of college, compared to the national college going rate of 67% (Benally, 2004; Chavers, 2000). Moreover, more than half of all freshman Native American students start at two year colleges, and Native students are the least likely of all student groups to complete four-year degrees (Pavel, et. al., 1998).

The near absence of American Indian students on our college campuses deprives the higher education community of indigenous perspectives and contributions to research and teaching, while at the same time depriving American Indian communities of the contributions that a formally educated workforce can make to Native communities’ sovereignty, self-determination, health, education, and economic development. While a growing body of research justifiably addresses college access for African Americans, Latinos and Asian Pacific American students (Allen, 1988; Attanasi, 1989; Cabrera, & La Nasa, 2000; Freeman, 1997; Hurtado, et. al., 1997; McDonough & Antonio, 2002; Perez, 1999; Solórzano, 1992; Solórzano & Villalpando, 1998; Tierney, 1999, Tierney, 2001; Teranishi, Teranishi, et. al. 2004), very little research has addressed the college choice and preparation experiences of American Indian students.

Purpose of the Study and Research Questions

Getting to college is a complex longitudinal process influenced by a strata of

experiences and factors that start the moment a child enters school if not before. The purpose of this study is to better understand the complexities of college going for American Indian students, primarily from California Native nations. Fifty-three junior and senior American Indian high school students were interviewed about their experiences in navigating the pathway to college. In this study, Native students’ access to college is considered in an ecological context that includes students’ school experiences, families, tribes and living in a rural reservation community. To that end, the following questions were addressed:

  • What role do the students’ schools play in influencing college choice and preparation?

  • What role do students’ families play in influencing college choice and preparation?

  • What role do students’ tribes play in influencing college choice and preparation?

  • How are students negotiating college preparation?

  • How does life as tribal citizens living on reservations in rural areas influence students' college aspirations and college preparation?

  • What are students’ suggestions for improving postsecondary outreach for other American Indian students?

A Review of College Access Literature

The literature on college choice and access focuses on personal and institutional factors that impact postsecondary access. Personal factors generally include socioeconomic status (Breen and Goldthorpe, 1997; Cabrera and La Nasa, 2000; Hossler, Braxton and Coopersmith, 1989; Hossler, Schmit, and Vesper, 1999; McDonough, 1997), parental knowledge, encouragement and support for higher education (Hossler, Braxton, and Coopersmith, 1989; Hossler, Schmit, and Vesper, 1999; McDonough, 1999; Perez, 1999), peer influences (Hossler, Braxton and Coopersmith, 1989; Hossler, Schmit, and Vesper, 1999; McDonough, 1997) and individual academic achievement (Hossler, Braxton and Coopersmith, 1989; Hossler, Schmit and Vesper, 1999).

Socioeconomic status (SES) is the most influential factor in college access, affecting students' college aspirations, eligibility and attendance beyond ability or achievement (Jenks, et. al, 1972; McDonough, 1997; Pascarella and Terenzini, 1991). Poor and first-generation students tend to develop aspirations for college later than middle class students whose parents are more likely to have college knowledge and experience (Hossler, Schmit, and Vesper, 1999). Having early plans for college is critical for completing university eligibility requirements such as taking the correct sequence of courses, enrolling in honors or Advanced Placement courses, achieving competitive scores on college entrance exams and participating in extracurricular activities and community service (Cabrera and La Nasa, 2000; McDonough, 1997).

While research has shown that parental encouragement and support is the most important indicator of a child developing college aspirations (Hossler, Braxton and Coopersmith, 1989; Hossler, Schmit, and Vesper, 1999, McDonough, 1997), parents who have not attended college often lack critical information that enable them to be preemptive in helping their children prepare for and become eligible for college (Delgado-Gaitan, 1990; Perez, 1999). These families must rely upon institutional agents to provide information about college.

Structurally, the K-12 school context directs postsecondary access through school practices and policies, such as tracking certain groups of students into either academic or technical education. School agents, (teachers, counselors, and administrators) also play a role in "channeling" students into college or vocational pathways (Freeman, 1997; McDonough, 1997; Solórzano 1995). Student access to college counseling within their school further determines how much information students receive about college options and how to make themselves eligible for four-year institutions (Freeman, 1997, Orfield et al. 1984 as cited in Freeman, 1997; McDonough, 1997).

Socioeconomic status intersects with structural institutional factors (schools) affecting postsecondary access. Affluent students have access to more sources of information about college, inclusive of private counselors, than their less well off peers (McDonough, 1997; McDonough, Korn, and Yamasaki, 1997). Family income dictates residential patterns, which in turn dictate the range of public and private elementary and secondary schools students are able to attend. Race also plays a role in students' schooling. According to Solórzano (1995), the low percentages of African American, Latino, and American Indian students who are eligible for university admission can partly be explained by the cumulative effects of inadequate academic preparation, negative teacher expectations, and the tracking of students of color disproportionately into non-academic, vocational courses, making access to college seem beyond reach for these students.

Schools that educate children from affluent families are more likely to have a "college focus" (McDonough, 1997), where parents, students and school personnel expect students to attend college. In schools serving affluent communities, college counseling is demanded by parents and students to ensure that students meet competitive eligibility for selective institutions. In schools that serve primarily poor and working class students, high school graduation is often emphasized over college preparation and college information, if provided at all, is more likely to direct students to community colleges as the only option for higher education after high school. Lack of access to college counseling in most public schools is exacerbated by the student to counselor ratio, for example, in California, the average high school counselor to student ratio is 979:1 (1999-2000 CBEDS), which does not allow for personal attention with even the best of intentions. Schools play a critical role in showing children how to get to college, and working class and children of color are often at a serious disadvantage in accessing information and resources about college from their schools.

Outside agents, such as university recruiters, also play a role in providing information and encouragement to students. However, according to Boyle (1996), even students who ranked at the top of their class in inner city high schools are less likely to have been visited by college recruiters than students who attend suburban schools. These students are also less likely to have visited a college campus, and less likely to have received the most basic information necessary for college eligibility and choice. At the same time, in many inner-city (and rural schools), military recruiters are likely to have a weekly presence on campus and they have been effective in making students aware of the future economic benefits of joining the service (McDonough, 1999, 2002).

American Indian students may share many similar experiences with other first-generation and historically underrepresented students in regards to schooling and college access. Nevertheless, the political, historical and contemporary experiences of Native Americans may include a unique set of dilemmas that Native students face as they negotiate their way through high school and make choices about college. It is therefore important as context to consider the historical and current educational experiences of Native Americans.

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