LAME DEER – At the math lab at Chief Dull Knife College here, students who have a question don’t have to raise their hand.
They can flip up a flag on the side of their computer monitor and a teacher will come over to help.
It’s a small, but critical, cultural accommodation on the Northern Cheyenne reservation, where student Savannah Charette said many tribal members aren’t the type who feel comfortable asking questions in class.
“All Cheyenne are like that,” she said. “We’re humble.”
The tribal college’s president, Richard Littlebear, agreed.
“Even me as a doctoral student, I was afraid to raise my hand in class even though I knew the answer,” he said.
Charette got her introduction to college at a big university where having hundreds of students in a lecture hall was common, but now the bubbly 20-year-old is thriving at the tribal school in her hometown. She’s even taking an extra math class because she’s more confident in herself.
Proficiency at math matters because it’s one of the hurdles that can trip up students. Angela McLean, American Indian and Minority Achievement director for the commissioner of higher education, said more than half of the students who have to take remedial math courses “will quit before they will go back.”
“When I ask why someone isn’t back in school,” Littlebear said, “the answer is always math. ... Now it’s a bit more positive, and they can get this help.”
Figuring out the obstacles to American Indian student success and how to overcome them were the reasons state Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian and McLean visited Chief Dull Knife and Little Big Horn Tribal College in Crow Agency last week. The trips were the first of several they are making to tribal colleges across the state.
Native students enroll in college at a rate less than their non-Native counterparts. Only 5 percent of students in the Montana University System are Native and they make up just 4 percent of graduates. The retention rate for Native students was just 52.6 percent in 2015, compared with 75 percent for the total system in 2014.
Charette is studying to get a general associate degree and wants to move to Missoula and enroll in the culinary program.
“I love food and I want to open my own restaurant one day,” she said. “I love breakfast, so I think that’s the way to go.”
Attending Chief Dull Knife increases her chances of finishing that program, said David Yarlott, president of Little Big Horn College in Crow Agency.
On his reservation, Yarlott said only 15 percent of students who go to four-year colleges graduate if they don’t start out at tribal college. If students attend those two-year schools first, their success rate jumps to 85 percent.
Christian agreed, saying “we don’t make it overly easy for our students and families to figure out. They sort of struggle their way in.”
Yarlott’s numbers are convincing, but they’re also just anecdotal.
Tribal colleges don’t have to participate in the National Student Clearinghouse, which tracks college student enrollment and graduation data.
Both Little Big Horn and Chief Dull Knife colleges are working to become a part of the clearinghouse in order to collect better data and find ways to market themselves.
Even in a state with seven of the nation’s 34 accredited tribal colleges, awareness about what they are and who they serve is low. The colleges tend to be rural and overlooked.
“They are the only on-ramp in some parts of the state,” McLean said. “We need to make sure everyone knows they are here for our Native and non-Native students.”
The general public “still doesn't realize that tribal colleges are accredited,” Yarlott said. “I still have conversations with people that don’t even know about us, even from the state of Montana where we have seven tribal colleges.”
Yarlott said while some relationships between the tribal colleges and state university system have improved, there’s not a strong awareness of what tribal colleges are.
“There’s this perception that tribal colleges are just for Natives,” Yarlott said, “but we are open enrollment. We save the state of Montana money.”
A new law signed last year would allow the state to give tribal colleges up to $3,280 for each full-time-equivalent, non-beneficiary student, but funding wasn’t available to pay for it, Yarlott said.
“For the state of Montana, it should be considered an investment instead of an expense,” he said. “In educating tribal and non-tribal students, what we do is provide these opportunities to be more successful.”
Chief Dull Knife student Troy Bearcomesout, 26, already will be familiar with the Montana State University campus in Bozeman when he starts there next fall. He’s a sophomore at Chief Dull Knife now and has already spent a summer doing research at MSU.
He expects his credits to transfer seamlessly – the common course numbering initiative, which means Math 216 at a two-year school is the same as Math 216 at MSU, has started to make a difference.
But sometimes a transfer has hang-ups, and anything that needlessly deters a student is a problem, Yarlott said.
There’s nothing more disheartening, Yarlott said, than for a student to graduate and expect to start at a state college as a junior and be questioned on their credentials.
“We continue to graduate students from here, but in some places they will not accept what our students have done. Transferability is better, but we still have work to do.”
Littlebear said he wants to remove as many obstacles as possible for students to transfer.
“It doesn’t take long for our students who transfer to be discouraged by something like that,” he said. “It doesn’t take long for the prejudice issue to surface so that when somebody who looks like Troy and I come up there and we’ve had troubles, then the thought is, ‘Oh, it’s because they’re Indian,’ or the Indian says, ‘Oh, it’s because they’re white.’ We gotta get past that somehow – just look at the accomplishment of the student.”
This summer, Bearcomesout isn’t interning at MSU because he wants to let another student experience what he already has.
But he’s confident he’ll start college next fall somewhere that feels familiar and perhaps see faces he knows.
“I feel prepared for anything, but I’m just really going to miss this place,” Bearcomesout said.