South Dakota summit looks to boost American Indian education

By Chet Brokaw
Oacoma, South Dakota (AP) September 2010

The college environment is becoming more welcoming to American Indians, but an expert in Native American education said last week that far more must be done to bring the group’s graduation rate to the same level as other students.

About 150,000 American Indian students now attend colleges and universities in the United States, with about a third of them attending colleges run by tribes, Wayne J. Stein, a professor at Montana State University, said in a keynote speech at South Dakota’s seventh annual Indian Education Summit. However, American Indian students enroll and graduate from college at a much lower rate than other students do, Stein said.

Stein was one of the first speakers at the summit, which is aimed at improving education for American Indian students at the elementary school, high school and higher education levels. About 600 educators and state, tribal and federal officials were registered for the conference.

Stein said between a third and half of all American Indian children fail to graduate from high school, and about half those graduates may seek higher education. But many drop out of college, so only 10-15 percent of the children wind up with college degrees.

“It could be much better,” he said.

However, Stein said Native Americans have taken more control of the education system so it no longer seeks to strip their children of their Native American identity, culture and tradition.

“We turned education into a tool we now use to help develop children into their highest capacity, hopefully, and give them a chance to grow into who they should become,” Stein said.

In addition, many tribally run colleges have been started on many reservations, Stein said.

However, state and private universities now need leaders who will seek to boost enrollment among American Indian students.

“If you have a president of a university or college that walks in the door and says, `Indian people are important to me,’ it will begin to change the culture of that institution like you won’t believe,” Stein said.

American Indian students also need to see other students and teachers like them when they get to campus, Stein said. Otherwise, they are likely to drop out because they feel isolated and lonely, he said.

Jack Warner, executive director of the South Dakota Board of Regents, said the six state-run universities have developed a number of programs to increase the number of American Indian students who enter and graduate.

“I’m here to say it’s a priority,” Warner said.

While American Indians make up about 10 percent of South Dakota’s population, they represent less than 3 percent of the people in the public universities, Warner said. And the dropout rate among American Indian students is higher than the overall rate, he said.

Many Native American students attend tribal colleges in South Dakota, but the state universities should play a bigger role in American Indian education because they offer more areas of major study, Warner said.

A panel of American Indian students attending state universities also answered questions at the conference, and most said they made it to college with the support of parents and teachers.

“My going to college was just kind of expected, I guess,” said Rozlyn Quilt, a member of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe attending Black Hills State University.

Jonathan Yellow Fat of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe said a support group and other Native American students have helped him adjust to life at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City.