In Context

In Up Heartbreak Hill, the principal of Navajo Pine High School states that one in 10 students enrolled at the school will complete college and that that figure is basically the same at schools across the reservation. According to the American Indian College Fund, one of the primary factors behind the low number of college degree earners from the school is that a large portion of American Indian college students are first-generation college attendees. Despite the overall high levels of education in the United States, there are still many first-generation college students (students whose parents do not hold college degrees). According to a 2007 study done by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, nearly one in six freshmen at American four-year institutions are first-generation college students.

Research suggests that students whose parents did not attend or complete their post-secondary education face a distinct set of challenges. Such students often struggle more than their peers when applying to colleges, due to lack of family knowledge of the application process; additionally, their choices are more likely to be constrained by financial factors. These students are more likely than others to be employed while studying and are significantly more focused on college as a means to improve their economic standing.

First-generation students often feel less academically prepared as well; studies suggest that they are more likely than their peers from college-educated families to arrive at college needing remedial or preparatory assistance. Adjusting to the social atmosphere can also be a challenge for these students, who may be older than the average student, since first-generation college attendees are more likely to spend time working between high school and college. The challenges that these students face make it more difficult for some to finish their schooling, and a first-generation student is slightly more likely than the student population as a whole to leave college without obtaining a degree. Those who do graduate, however, achieve professional status on par with other graduates and have similar long-term earning prospects.

One of the most prominent obstacles preventing American Indian students from pursuing higher education is lack of the financial resources to do so. With the average per capita income of American Indian students at $8,000, there is a great need for financial support. This is one of the reasons Tamara chooses Fort Lewis College, one of five schools in the country that provide free tuition to enrolled tribal members.

The American Indian College Fund was established in 1989 in order to assist in funding the 33 higher education institutions in the tribal college and universities in the United States, as well as provide scholarships to American Indian students attending them. The American Indian College Fund reports that 36 percent of its scholarship recipients are first-generation college students. Unfortunately, only 11 percent of first-generation college students earn degrees in six years. Some factors affecting graduation rates include less college preparation compared to their non-reservation counterparts, cultural isolation in off-reservation colleges and family resistance based in fear that students will lose their tribes' customs and traditions. One of the benefits of tribal colleges and universities is the preservation of Native languages and cultures through curriculum and activities. This provides a more culturally supportive environment.

Caption:Thomas stands in front of "The Wall" at his dad, Jazz's, house.
Credit: Anthony Thosh Collins (Pima/Osage/Seneca-Cayuga)

» Ambler, Marjane. "While Globalizing Their Movement, Tribal Colleges Import Ideas." Tribal College Journal, 16 (4), Summer 2005.
» American Indian College Fund.
» American Indian College Fund. "Championing Success: A Report on the Progress of Tribal College and University Alumni."
» Higher Education Research Institute. "First in My Family: A Profile of First-Generation College Students at Four-Year Institutions Since 1971."
» Indian Country Today Media Network. "Buffalo Harvest Sparks Dialogue at Colorado College."
» Inside Higher Ed. "Aiding First-Generation Students."
» National Center for Education Statistics. "First-Generation Students: Undergraduates Whose Parents Never Enrolled in Postsecondary Education."
» Texas Guaranteed Student Loan Corporation "First-Generation College Students: A Literature Review."
» U.S. Census Bureau. "Educational Attainment: 2000."