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Native American students are underrepresented in computer science classrooms, making up fewer than 1 percent of CS degree holders.

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Technology is a growing sector with expanding job opportunities for new graduates, but Native American students remain underrepresented in college programs geared toward computer science, according to a new report, “The State of Diversity: The Native Tech Ecosystem.”

The report, published Oct. 17 by nonprofit group the Kapor Foundation in partnership with the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, identifies barriers to Native and Indigenous participation in tech fields and how higher education can better support underrepresented students.

What’s the need: Around 9.15 million people in the U.S. work in technology, with over 280,000 jobs added each year, yet Native communities are often excluded from those opportunities.

“As the tech sector continues to grow, it is critical Tribal Nations and communities are included in decision-making and leadership to ensure the path forward is inclusive and equitable, and to ensure opportunities positively impact Native communities,” the report says.

By the numbers: American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) people account for about 3 percent of the U.S. population, and Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders (NH/PI) account for 0.5 percent.

Computer and information sciences and support services were the third-most-popular program among four-year institutions in spring 2023, with an estimated 595,212 undergraduates during the term, an 11.6 percent rate of growth year over year, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Two-year colleges saw 9.7 percent growth in their computer science and IT programs as well, with 227,882 students in the spring 2023 term.

Postsecondary pathways: Computer science enrollment for Native students at all two- and four-year institutions is stagnant, with these students having a limited presence in these spaces due to broader structural issues.

American Indians and Alaska Natives make up around 0.6 percent of all registered technical apprentices, and Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders are an even smaller proportion, at 0.4 percent, according to 2021 data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.

For associate degrees in computing, 1 percent of graduates are American Indians and Alaska Natives, and 0.4 percent are Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students. That number shrinks to 0.4 percent of bachelor’s and master’s degrees each, and Native students earn only 0.1 percent of doctoral degrees.

Western Governors University is most likely to award a computer science degree to AI/AN or NH/PI students, but the university conferred 79 degrees in 2021 to Native students in total. Among tribal colleges and universities, Navajo Technical College conferred 11 degrees to Native students that year, while Oglala Lakota College and Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute each awarded three.

These issues could be underfunding in general, a disconnect between computing education and tribal priorities, erasing Indigenous ways of knowing, exclusionary enrollment policies, or inaccessible resources, according to the report.

Alternative pathways: Tech boot camps and apprenticeships serve as an alternative for students looking to upskill or reskill, but Native students hold a small number of roles in these pathways as well. In 2020, 2 percent of coding boot-camp alumni were Indigenous, and around 2 percent of all technical apprenticeships offered in 2023 were held by AI/AN or NH/PI learners.

Recommendations: To promote Native American student success, institutions should:

  • Invest in undergraduate programs to address barriers to entry and completion and improve infrastructure required.  
  • Recruit and retain Native students and employees, including offering scholarships, fellowships and research awards, and support for tenure-track faculty members.  
  • Improve transfer processes between two- and four-year institutions to support Native degree completion, particularly among colleges with high proportions of Indigenous students.
  • Establish inclusive, accessible, affordable and Native-led coding boot camps.  
  • Address financial barriers to degree completion, including providing scholarships and financial incentives.  
  • Eliminate arbitrary barriers to a computer science major, like a GPA requirement. 
  • Implement equitable pedagogy and evidence-based teaching practices to improve computing classroom climates and cultures.  

The report also encourages long-term and sustainable investment in tribal colleges and universities so they can meet the emerging tech needs in curricula, infrastructure and research.

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