HAVRE — A federal program that has helped campuses retain Native American students is on the chopping block in President Trump's proposed 2020 budget.
Montana State University–Northern used to lose Native American students at a high rate.
Just a few years ago, MSU–Northern counted a retention rate of 57% for its full-time Native students, similar to the average for all Native students in the Montana University System.
At the Havre campus, that number has since shot up, hitting 86% this spring, far surpassing the 70% retention rate for all undergraduates in the university system, according to data from the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education.
Educators at MSU–Northern credit the Little River Institute, a program through the U.S. Department of Education for Native American Serving Non-Tribal Institutions, or NASNTI.
"We are not seeing that kind of an increase or jump with other students," said Erica McKeon-Hanson, project director for the Little River Institute.
"On average, the rest of the student body is still at 57 percent," said Margarett Campbell, director for American Indian Education at the Little River Institute and tribal liaison for the campus.
The Little River Institute has a goal to double graduation rates of its largest minority student group, and the significant bump in retention helps the campus make headway. But the proposed 2020 federal budget for the Department of Education wipes out direct funding for the program and proposes a new consolidated grant for Minority Serving Institutions.
Some higher education advocates don't believe the budget proposal and its cuts will gain traction in Congress. Nonetheless, those witnessing the dial move for students believe it's time to shine a light on outcomes of NASNTI programs.
"Since they've proven to be so successful, I'd like to see them remain in the budget," Campbell said.
Grant in 2015
MSU–Northern was awarded the $1.9 million five-year grant in fall 2015. The campus qualifies because at least 10% of its student population is Native American.
The campus "service area" includes four of Montana's reservations and the Little Shell tribe, and two reservations are within a 45-minute drive. Northern was the only campus in the Montana University System eligible for the grant.
The smallest four-year school of the system, Northern counted a full-time equivalent enrollment this spring of 901 and head count last spring of 1,119. Generally, enrollment has slipped some, from a headcount of 1,172 in 2015.
Prior to the award, Northern counted 12% of its enrollment as Native American.
Since the launch of the program, the percent of Native American students has ticked up year after year, hitting 18% this spring, the highest proportion of any campus of the system. Directors note the head count also is on the upswing.
"As the students are having a good experience, they're sharing that with their families and their friends," McKeon-Hanson said.
The Little River Institute aims to increase academic and social engagement for Native American students through four approaches.
"Crucially, each activity is designed to foster an environment of cultural responsiveness toward American Indian culture and tradition," reads a program abstract.
Professional tutors with bachelor's and master's degrees work closely with faculty and serve as liaisons for students, even embedding in classes to hear lectures. Some 92% of tutored students pass their classes, according to data from the Little River Institute.
In direct response to faculty and staff, the program also created Campbell's position. She provides ongoing professional development in cultural awareness for employees and serves as part of the executive leadership team for the campus.
The program also offers peer mentoring, where more experienced students advise newer students on how to deal with their bill or find day care, for instance.
And, it provides a space for the Sweetgrass Society, a Native American student organization.
Mia LameBull, a student and peer mentor, said the Little River Institute has created allies for Native American students, and it's making faculty more aware of how to support all students.
"I see them being a lot more culturally responsive," LameBull said.
But directors said the program isn't just about serving students in Havre.
"These projects are important because they help to develop best practices that other campuses can then implement," McKeon-Hanson said.
Campbell said most tribal colleges are accredited at the two-year level, and students who want four-year degrees often look to Northern.
"Students transfer up here, and they do very well. The role that we play for tribal college students cannot be overstated," Campbell said.
The Department of Education lists other NASNTI programs in Arizona, Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Utah. Campbell said she would like to see eligibility levels dropped so more universities can participate in the future, but program funding itself is not guaranteed.
"These are scary times for educational budgets that deal with minorities," Campbell said.
Tom Harnisch, director of state relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said the Trump administration has proposed deep cuts to education programs in general — 12.5% — and some program consolidations.
He said one danger in consolidation is that it creates a new program without a history of funding and is therefore vulnerable to cuts. The other danger is discrete programs lose their identities and constituencies, and therefore lose support from lawmakers.
Harnisch, though, said he does not believe Congress will approve a budget that slashes funding for NASNTI programs.
"We haven't seen much appetite for these changes on Capitol Hill," he said.
Nonetheless, Harnisch said it's a good time to share successes and the reasons such programs merit support. The gains they are making are impressive, he said, and the "vast majority" of Native American students attend public institutions that are nontribal.
"It's critical that we raise the student retention and graduation rates for them, and this program invests in the capacity of institutions so they can foster increased student success," Harnisch said.
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