Introduction to Tribal Colleges and Universities


The American Indian College Fund (College Fund) partners with the nation’s tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) to provide Native students with affordable, accessible, and culturally aligned higher education.

TCUs bring unique benefits to their students and communities, but the tribal college system is not well known outside Indian Country. We hope that this brief introduction will illustrate how TCUs help Native scholars improve their lives through the power of education.

A Higher Education for Native People

Native students often face significant obstacles to academic success and cultural belonging at mainstream colleges and universities. Differences between Western and Indigenous teaching methods and standards of success can lead to gaps in achievement and cultural misalignment. Students coming from often under-resourced school systems in rural, reservation communities may be at a greater disadvantage in accessing appropriate remedial supports.

In 1968, responding to the need for Native-focused higher education, the Navajo Nation launched the tribal college movement by establishing Navajo Community College (now Diné College): located on Navajo land, managed by the tribe, and designed to serve Native students. This inspired other tribal nations to create their own institutions of higher education, and today 35 fully-accredited TCUs—in the Southwest, the Northwest, and across the Great Plains from Kansas and Oklahoma to Minnesota and the Dakotas—serve a combined annual enrollment of nearly 22,000 students.

TCUs offer programs that range from vocational training to associate, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees. Popular majors at TCUs include business, health professions, and the STEM fields (science, technology, education, and mathematics)—all high-demand career areas in tribal communities. Coursework at TCUs incorporates Native language and culture, ensuring that traditional knowledge is passed on to new generations while also increasing the chances that Native students will persist in school, graduate, and move on to meaningful careers and community engagement.

Beyond the classroom, TCUs give Native students a learning environment responsive to their needs. During the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused disproportionate hardship for tribal communities, TCUs adapted to help their students continue their studies. According to Jasmine Neosh (right), a student at the College of Menominee Nation (CMN) in Wisconsin, “The love and support of the CMN community and the TCU community as a whole is one of the biggest things that helped me get through.”

For many Native college students seeking higher education, TCUs are not just a convenient or affordable alternative to mainstream schools.

They are the best choice.

A Pathway to Success

TCUs enrich their communities. They drive economic development and supply skilled workers to local businesses. They serve as community outreach centers, distributing emergency services and resources during times of crisis. They help to preserve and nurture Native cultures and cultivate a sense of belonging and community, furnishing continuing education programs and outreach to nearly 47,000 tribal citizens every year. They provide Native students with a holistic, supportive, Indigenous-focused environment that mainstream institutions cannot match.

Most importantly, TCUs open a pathway to success for their graduates. A recent survey of TCU alumni, conducted jointly by Gallup, the Strada Education Network, and the College Fund, found that 74 percent of TCU graduates moved on to careers serving their communities and societies. TCU graduates are nearly twice as likely as college graduates nationwide to report that they are thriving financially, socially, and at work. Nearly 60 percent of TCU alumni say that their schools were “perfect” for them, while nearly 70 percent agree that their education was worth the cost.

The College Fund acts as the fundraising and public-education arm of the TCU system. Our partnership leverages the place-based, culturally informed approach of TCUs with the national reach and resources of the College Fund to propel Native students toward success, with College Fund scholars at TCUs graduating at almost twice the rate of Native students nationally.

College Fund Scholars** at tribal colleges graduate at rates almost 2x higher than Native Students nationally

  • TCU Students 21% 21%
  • College Fund Scholars at TCUs 37% 37%
  • American Indians and Alaskan Natives at Community Colleges 20% 20%
  • All Community College Students 28% 28%

Note: Graphic scaled 0% to 50%

**Most College Fund scholars are associate degree-seeking and attend publicly funded tribal colleges, making this group more comparable to the graduation rates at two-year public community colleges. (Sources: AIHEC AIMS-AKIS Data, 2019-2020. These data are for 2-year tribal colleges only [n=17]. National Center for Educational Statistics, Table 326.20 [Updated 2020]. Data for 2-year public postsecondary institutions.

Our partners’ support allows us to fund scholarships and services for TCU students and to collaborate with TCUs on educational programming that improves the quality of life for Native people from birth to career. 

Tribal Colleges and Universities

Tribal colleges and universities provide dynamic higher education opportunities, most on or near reservation lands. Known for their remarkable programs, culturally-relevant curricula, and familial student care – tribal colleges allow students to further their careers, attain an advanced degree, or better support their communities.