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Dina Horwedel, Director of Public Education, American Indian College Fund

Colleen R. Billiot, Public Education Coordinator, American Indian College Fund

American Indian College Fund Research Examines Academic Program Development and Assessment Focus for Student Success at Tribal Colleges

Assuring the Quality of Academic Programs at Tribal Colleges and Universities

May 2, 2023, Denver, Colo.— The American Indian College Fund (College Fund) is releasing three briefs with findings from a three-part research project on tribal colleges and universities it conducted in 2020-21. The focus of the research includes tribal college and university (TCU) student support services, program development and review, and sustainability. TCUs are unique higher learning institutions located on or near Indian reservations with the dual mission to provide tribal citizens higher education opportunities while ensuring that degree programs, assessment, and student support structures are based in community and culture.

Unlike other higher education institutions, TCUs were chartered by tribal nations as an act of self-determination in higher education and to support Native nation-building. They play a critical role for their students and tribal communities. Despite their importance, little research has been done about TCUs, and instead research focuses on the Indigenous student experience at predominantly white institutions. The College Fund partnered with a selection of TCUs to begin filling this data gap and to offer insights into TCU practices and how to best support them.

“Assuring the Quality of Academic Programs at Tribal Colleges and Universities” is one of three briefs released with this research goal in mind. The study and brief, funded by a grant from the Lumina Foundation, are the result of a collaboration between the College Fund and five TCUs. The College Fund conducted interviews with institutional leaders, faculty, and staff; reviewed available literature; and reviewed each institution’s strategic plan during the project.

TCUs follow the same path of other mainstream higher education institutions to accreditation. Colleges and universities develop quality assurance processes to evaluate potential new programs and current programs to meet the accreditation requirements of third-party nongovernmental organizations, such as the Higher Learning Commission (HLC). Accreditation by such organizations is formal assurance that the institution or specific program has met a minimum level of quality. Accreditation is also a gateway to critical federal funding for students and a requirement for TCUs to join the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, a national organization of TCUs. All five TCUs who participated in this study are accredited by the HLC.

Quality programs are typically defined as those with clear learning outcomes to help students to get meaningful jobs, to seamlessly transfer to other institutions, and to lead personally satisfying lives. An accrediting body may weigh job placements or on-time graduation rates as metrics to determine the quality of a program or institution. Though TCUs also prioritize these outcomes, they must respond to the training and educational needs expressed by their tribal councils and communities. This research brief provides an in-depth look into the quality assurances processes of TCUs.

The study identified four major themes around academic program development, the preferred term participants used when discussing postsecondary credentialing or quality assurance practices. TCUs use a four-step process similar to mainstream colleges when developing new academic programs: planning, internal review, external review, and program implementation. TCUs engage in vertical and horizontal program development to create deeper and broader academic program offerings, regularly review existing academic programs for relevancy and quality. TCUs are influenced in the development and review of academic programs by contextual and cultural factors specific to their charters as Indigenous higher education institutions, for example, when developing Native language courses to meet tribal community needs.

For decades TCUs have offered quality, culturally based, accredited academic programs to benefit Native students and communities. The findings from this study will provide a foundation for future research about quality assurance practices at TCUs.

To read or download a copy of “Assuring the Quality of Academic Programs at Tribal College and Universities”, please visit

Erik Dutilly, Research and Evaluation Associate at the American Indian College Fund, said, “Tribal colleges and universities are some of the most unique and creative higher education institutions in the country. Their academic program development reflects their uniquely Indigenous approach and is infused with a deep sense of responsibility to cultural values, community resilience, political sovereignty, and education as a cornerstone to thriving Native people and communities.”

Cheryl Crazy Bull, President and CEO of the American Indian College Fund, said, “In my 40-plus years of working within the tribally controlled education movement, I have witnessed the transformative impact of a college education on individuals and families in our tribal communities. That transformation is rooted in the quality of that education experience which is multi-faceted—culturally-rooted, place-based, and employment-focused. This research affirms why this happens—the staff and faculty of TCUs are thoughtful, community-driven, and responsive to tribal priorities and to the requirements for accountability through internal and external reviews.”

About the American Indian College Fund—The American Indian College Fund has been the nation’s largest charity supporting Native higher education for 33 years. The College Fund believes “Education is the answer” and provided $14.45 million in scholarships and other direct student support to American Indian students in 2021-22. Since its founding in 1989 the College Fund has provided more than $284 million in scholarships, programs, community, and tribal college support. The College Fund also supports a variety of academic and support programs at the nation’s 35 accredited tribal colleges and universities, which are located on or near Indian reservations, ensuring students have the tools to graduate and succeed in their careers. The College Fund consistently receives top ratings from independent charity evaluators and is one of the nation’s top 100 charities named to the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance. For more information about the American Indian College Fund, please visit

Journalists—The American Indian College Fund does not use the acronym AICF. On second reference, please use the College Fund.

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