How could COVID-19 affect Native American student enrollment in higher ed?

Higher education can expect a sharp decline of Native students attending colleges and universities outside of their communities as a result of the pandemic, expert says
By: | May 22, 2020
Higher ed should brace for the possibility that Native students might not enroll in colleges or universities, including some Tribal schools, as a result of the pandemic, which will exacerbate some of the many Native American education issues.gettyimages.com: Marc Romanelli

A high percentage of Native American students could possibly not enroll in colleges and universities outside of their communities following the COVID-19 pandemic. In contrast, enrollment at non-boarding Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) located on native reservations will likely grow.

“The priorities of our Native students are going to shift away from education to create stronger cultural connections with their reservations and communities,” says Executive Director Diana Cournoyer of the National Indian Education Association, a nonprofit formed by Native educators to encourage a national discourse on Native education. “They aren’t going to want to leave their family or community where they feel safe for quite some time.”

Coronavirus worsens Native American education issues

Many native students who want to continue their education during school closures don’t have access to Wi-Fi or web-enabled devices at home, since the only laptops they did use were located in the computer lab or library at their Tribal schools. When preparing for closures, some Tribal schools such as Oglala Lakota College, a non-boarding institution that serves each of the nine reservation districts throughout the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, purchased laptops and cell phones with hotspots for students since many families on the reservation do not have the technology.


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“Most Native students don’t have the ability to purchase a laptop, and even if they received a Pell grant or scholarship, they were used for child care, living expenses or food,” says Cournoyer who is a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

“Many students feel that they made it this far without a laptop—usually until their mid-twenties—before college provided them with this technology, so they don’t see it as a necessity in their life to get one now.”

Additionally, Native students who originally had jobs on campus are now more focused on finding employment during closures than pursuing online learning.

“Usually, these students would have worked in their community, but many tribes and reservations are completely shut down, so these students have to find work someplace else, which causes additional stress,” says Cournoyer.

She adds, “Many people don’t know about TCUs to this degree, and since most of them are smaller with fewer resources than other colleges and universities, they would benefit from collaborations within higher ed that involved sharing technology, courses and digital tools. Virtual and distance learning would have been easier if our TCUs could have looked at what successes were out there without a purse attached to it.”

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