Tribal College Status: What Does it Mean?

Iḷisaġvik College recently became the first federally recognized tribal college in Alaska. But what does that really mean? And why is it so important?

The history of tribal colleges can be traced back many decades to the Native American activism of the 1960s and 70s, combined with the social programs promoted by the federal government at that time. The purpose of a tribal college, as opposed to simply a community college, is to create an institution that speaks to the cultural values of the students served while helping them overcome the many obstacles they face in getting a post-secondary education, and that’s exactly what we’re doing at Iḷisaġvik college.

Statistics show that 37% of people attend college nationally. For Native Americans this statistic plummets to 17%, lower than any other ethnic or racial group in America. Nationally, 45% of all people have at least a bachelor’s degree. For Native Americans this statistic once again plummets to 15%, also lower than any other ethnic or racial group in America today. Less than 1% of teachers in post secondary education positions are Native Americans, leaving Native American students with very few role models in their quest for higher education.

Tribal College status brings with it financial advantages in that it makes an institution eligible for funds specifically earmarked for such colleges. But the financial gain is secondary to the social importance it holds for its students. Being a tribal college means that your whole philosophy is based on the culture of the tribe or group served. The whole focus of a tribal college is to present students with an opportunity for a post-secondary education in a setting that is based on their traditions and values.

Iḷisaġvik qualified as a tribal college due to the fact that it is sanctioned by the Iñupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, which is recognized by the federal government as a regional tribal government. Iḷisaġvik’s designation qualifies it for membership to the American Indian Higher Education Consortium which, in turn, gives Iḷisaġvik eligibility for certain benefits from the American Indian College Fund, such as scholarship support.

Iḷisaġvik has become the 36th recognized tribal college in America. It will use this designation to continue to move towards its goal of preparing students for the local workforce as well as offering the basics needed for students wishing to go on to a four-year degree. If Alaska Native students hope to enter the workforce of the 21st Century able to compete in the marketplace, tribal colleges such as Iḷisaġvik are a vital first step towards achieving that goal.