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Students, local colleges wrestle with Native American graduation rates

Studies show woeful numbers when it comes to the number of Native Americans attending college, let alone graduating. However, despite the challenges, Eastern Arizona College, San Carlos Apache College and students themselves are working hard to not just increase those numbers, but create a culture and community where Native American students are welcomed and supported.

According to a study entitled “The Condition of Education 2020” put out by the National Center for Education Statistics, nationwide, there are few Native American students in colleges and universities and even fewer Native American students who graduate.

The NCES report found that out of the overall postsecondary student population, there were 120,000 Native American students nationwide compared to a total undergraduate population of 19.65 million students in the fall of 2018, a decrease of 4,000 enrolled Native American students compared to the fall of 2017.

According to another study done by the Postsecondary National Policy Institute, in 2019, 25% of Native Americans above the age of 25 have associates degrees or higher, compared to 42% of the overall population. Out of the 2012 cohort of Native American students at four year institutes, 41% graduated after six years compared to 62% of the overall student population.

EAC’s Intertribal Club“We know that when you engage students socially, they stay in college,” said James Pryor, EAC’s retention coordinator and the advisor for the college’s Intertribal Club.

The Intertribal Club has been an active student club on EAC’s campus since the early 1970’s.

The club, which is open to all students, not just Native American students, has a mission to raise awareness of Indigenous cultures at the college and strengthen community bonds so students succeed academically.

The club meets weekly and hosts events and activities at EAC and acts as a kind of hangout space for students. Pryor also organizes workshops for students on subjects like how to apply for and manage financial aid, register for classes and speak to professors.

“We’re here to help with whatever they need,” Pryor said. “We know through service, we’re going to build trust.”

To Pryor and other EAC officials, building trust is one of the most important and effective ways to keep students engaged in school and eventually getting students to graduate.

“We work to demonstrate that socially, they’re accepted,” Pryor said. “Where they might not have that support in other circles, we try to give that support and show that they’re welcomed and loved.”


Eastern Arizona College’s internal statistics report 50% of their fall 2018 cohort of 28 Native American students completed a degree program, a certificate program or transferred to a four-year institution. In 2016, the college’s internal statistics show that out of 12 Native American students in that year’s cohort, 37.5% graduated.

Kenny Smith, the college’s dean of student services, said although the college’s 2018 graduation rates for Native American students “aren’t fantastic,” a 50% graduation rate is “a huge number.”

Smith said graduation rates for Native American students at the college have risen every year since 2014 and they’re still working to increase those numbers through a series of programs and initiatives, one of which is GEAR UP.

The Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, or GEAR UP, is a federal grant program where a counselor, or counselors, are assigned to work with seventh grade students in high poverty areas and advise them throughout their middle and high school careers in hopes they will graduate high school and move onto college.

EAC has GEAR Up coordinators in high schools in Safford, Pima, Miami, Fort Thomas and even Chinle and Window Rock on the Navajo Nation. The program, Pryor said, attracts not just San Carlos Apache students to EAC, but White Mountain Apache and Navajo students.

Sheldon Begay grew up in Ganado on the Navajo Nation. From 2014 to 2016 he attended EAC and was active in the college’s Intertribal Club. Begay said the club inspired him to get into working in higher education. From EAC he transferred to the University of Utah, where he was active in that campus’ Intertribal Club as well.

He earned bachelor’s in sports management there and then he transferred to Northern Arizona University where he got a master’s in educational counseling. Now, he’s the GEAR UP Coordinator at Fort Thomas High School.

“The premise and the goals of GEAR UP does really just entail everything I want to do,” Begay said. “We’re creating good avenues for these kids to go to college.”

Begay also recognizes the importance the Intertribal Club has for students in creating a community where students feel supported and seen by both their peers and the school administration.

“If they’re not connected to the college, they’re going to leave,” Begay said.

San Carlos Apache College

“For the most part, that’s why we wanted to build our college, to address those issues,” said Jayson Stanley.

Stanley, the director of the Mount Turnbull Academy, Fort Thomas Unified School District’s alternative high school in Bylas, was heavily involved in the formation of the San Carlos Apache College in San Carlos. He sat on the college’s Board of Regents and served as its chair until he stepped down a couple of months ago because of the mounting difficulties of juggling his multiple jobs and positions (he also coaches football) and to mourn the death of his mother, who passed away in May.

Open in the fall of 2017 with support from the San Carlos Apache Tribal Council, San Carlos Apache College, though open for all students, was specifically founded to cater to the needs of San Carlos Apache students.

Along with offering associates degrees in liberal arts, business management, social work and other academic fields, they also offer classes in Apache language, history, culture and next semester, even a course in Apache healthcare practices, said the college’s provost, Lisa Eutsey.

The college’s first cohort had a total of 58 enrolled students. The next year they had 65. Eutsey said the college’s first graduating class two years ago had four graduating students. This year they have 220 enrolled students and they’re expecting 15 to 20 graduates. Approximately 95% of the college’s student body is Native American, Eutsey said.

Eutsey, who came to San Carlos after working at the country’s first tribal college, Dine College on the Navajo Nation, said part of what separates tribal colleges from non-tribal colleges is that along with having programs for students to transfer to four year colleges, tribal colleges “focus on looking at students holistically and their language and culture and offering degrees that mean something to the community.”

They offer Apache language, history and culture courses, but also business administration certificates, which the college found was a certificate most in demand for jobs on the San Carlos Apache Reservation. Students can also earn certificates in social work and substance abuse, positions that could be especially effective and needed if Native American social workers worked with Native American clients.

Eutsey said the next program they’re hoping to build is a teacher credential program to provide Native American teachers for Native American kids in school districts across and beyond the various Native American nations in the country.

At San Carlos Apache College, Stanley said he, and the current board, work hard to also hire Apache and other Native American professors and other faculty that can relate, identify and encourage Native American students.

But beyond that, Eutsey said creating a community at the school where students feel supported and appreciated is paramount to keeping students in school and having them graduate or receive a certificate. To Eutsey and the college, that means not just having a strong counselling and advising team for students, but student clubs as well as having a food pantry stocked with free foods with students.

Last year, when the college had to transition to online classes because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the college found many of their students lacked both internet access and access to a computer. Using federal COVID relief funds, they bought computers for students and opened their doors to both students and the larger community to use their WiFi connection. With already a low tuition cost, the college also made tuition free, which with the college’s switch to online classes, attracted more students to enroll, Eutley said.

“Native American communities are very family-centered,” Eutley said.“So that’s what having a college in the community helps with.”

“That was the goal, let’s build something here so our kids don’t have to travel far,” Stanley said.

Stanley said some Native American parents are hesitant about sending their kids away to colleges far away from home so San Carlos Apache College allows local kids to stay close to home, while working towards their education.”

“Most importantly is just family,” Stanley said, “family support.”

For Stanley, his family’s support was paramount in his academic success, he said.

Stanley went to Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado for undergrad.

There he said he struggled during his freshman year, both academically and financially.

The college’s Native American student center is where he’d often go to eat, but also to hangout with other Native American students and get help from academic tutors.

Stanley compared it to a home away from home, which, along with frequent calls to check up on him and encouragement from his parents, helped him complete his B.A. in English. In 2017 he completed a master’s degree in education leadership from Northern Arizona University.


Trejaan Cosen is a freshman at EAC. He’s from Bylas. He’s not officially a part of the college’s Intertribal Club, but he hangs out at events from time to time. Like a lot of freshmen, he said he’s struggling a little bit to get the hang of college, but, he said he’s motivated to keep trying though, so he can set a good example for his siblings and to prove to himself that he can stay on course in college.

“I just want to prove it to myself,” Cosen said. “My parents had a hard time doing it. I’m kinda like the first in my family to try to get a degree.”

Cosen said his parents attended college for a bit, but they didn’t finish.

Cosen said a lot of his classmates from high school either couldn’t afford tuition, or found going straight into the workforce more fulfilling and practical. Cosen got a scholarship to attend EAC. He’s not sure if he wants to study business or computer science yet, but he’s adamant he’ll figure it out.

“You just have to keep going and stay motivated,” Cosen said.


Story Credit: By Sam Ribakoff Eastern Arizona Courier


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