Half Empty or Half Full?

Report notes huge gains and huge problems for Native Americans in higher education.
August 26, 2005

Contrary to what you might think from recent headlines, Native Americans on campus are not limited to those who entertain fans at halftime at Florida State University.

Enrollments of American Indian and Alaska Native students more than doubled in the 25 years prior to 2002, when there were almost 166,000 such students enrolled -- or about 1 percent of total enrollment. Those data are from a report issued Thursday by the U.S. Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics. The report provides an overview on numerous issues related to American Indians in all levels of education.

While the report noted the tremendous gains of the last 25 years, it also noted numerous ways -- such as college-going and graduation rates -- in which Native Americans lag behind other ethnic groups in higher education.

Besides growing, Native American enrollments have changed in other ways since 1976. Until 1994, more Native American students were enrolled in community colleges than at four-year institutions, but since that year, a majority of the students were enrolled at four-year institutions. Also in 1976, enrollments of male and female Native American students were relatively equal. But enrollments of women have grown at a much faster rate, such that there are just over 100,000 female Native Americans enrolled but only 65,700 men.

Enrollment has also been growing at tribally controlled colleges. Nearly 16,000 students were enrolled at these institutions in 2002, up 17 percent in five years. While only 8 percent of all Native American college students are enrolled at these institutions, these are the colleges with the largest proportions of Native American students.

Despite all of these increases, the Education Department data show that Native American students are less likely than other students to be enrolled in or to graduate from college. Of Native Americans between 18 and 24 years old, only 17.7 percent are enrolled in colleges and universities -- lower than the national average of 37.8 and the figures for every other ethnic or racial group. (Asian Americans lead at 60.3 percent.)

The data also suggest low graduation rates for Native Americans in higher education. The Education Department analyzed "likely postsecondary participants" (based on transcripts and other information) who were seniors in high school in 1992. By 2000, 15 percent of Native Americans in the group had a bachelor's degree, compared to a national average of 45 percent. The Native American percentage was the lowest for any racial or ethnic group, with Hispanics the closest, at 24 percent.

Of Native Americans earning degrees, the largest number are bachelor's degrees. The following table shows the number of degrees earned by male and female Native Americans:

Degrees Conferred on Native Americans, 2002-3, by Gender

Degree Men Women
Associate 2,624   4,846
Bachelor's 3,858   5,945
Master's 1,022   1,819
Doctoral      73      119
First professional    293      293
Total 7,870 13,022

In terms of subject matter, Native American students were most likely at the undergraduate level to be studying business, education or social sciences. At the master's level, education and business were the most popular areas of study, and at the doctoral level, they were education and psychology.

At the faculty level, Native Americans have very few positions in higher education. They make up 0.5 percent of full-time faculty members. Within the faculty, Native Americans are more likely to have positions in the lower ranks. They make up 0.9 percent of instructors, 0.5 percent of assistant professors, 0.4 percent of associate professors, and 0.3 percent of full professors.


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