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Native American Enrollment In Community College Has Plummeted 60% In 20 Years. Here's Why

A class at California Indian Nations College in Palm Desert. (Courtesy California Indian Nations College)
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The numbers scream at you: in the 1997-1998 academic year, there were about 26,000 Native American students enrolled in California's community college system. Twenty years later, that number was down to about 10,000.

"It's pretty shocking to see this giant decline in numbers," said Robert Przeklasa, vice president at California Indian Nations College in Palm Desert.

Community college administrators offer a few explanations, including a general decline in the student population and a federally mandated counting change instituted about a decade ago.

Native American higher education advocates say that regardless of the reasons, the data highlight a big problem: California's Native American population is large and growing and the state's largest college system is not doing enough to support and recruit Native students.

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"When [enrollment] declines, people suddenly think, we don't have any American Indians and Alaska Natives in our schools," Przeklasa said. And we don't have to offer services for them... we're not going to outreach to them or recruit them actively, because we don't see that population in our ranks... because they've disappeared because of this method of collecting student data."

How The Counting Change Actually Works

The California Community College Chancellor's office said the 2008 counting change mandated by the U.S. Department of Education created a new demographic category in the statistical count: "Multi Ethnicity." And that change prioritized Latino identities over others. Under the new methodology a student who chooses Mexican American, Central American, South American or other Latino categories, along with another ethnic or racial category, is counted as "Hispanic." However, Native Americans, African Americans, and other non-Hispanics who choose a second ethnic category are placed in the "Multi Ethnicity" category. Between 2010 and 2018, the Multi Ethnicity category systemwide grew from 36,051 students to 60,983 students.

"I want my Native American ethnicity known, I'm proud of it," said Celeste Townsend, interim president of California Indian Nations College in Palm Desert. "Seeing this, it's like we're [being] swept under the rug. They didn't get rid of us through assimilation with the off-reservation boarding schools, but now they're trying to get rid of us in this count."

Townsend, who is Shoshone Paiute, and Przeklasa are part of the founding team of administrators of California Indian Nations College. They say that the college was founded in part to address Native American invisibility on community college campuses.

The two-year college offers accredited classes through College of the Desert, but its goal is to become independent in the coming years. The campus seeks to create a supportive environment for Native Americans and offer classes filled with Native American content.

Students & Services

Native American enrollment at most California community colleges is well below one percent of the student population.

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"Even if enrollment is low... that doesn't mean services are low as well," said Molly Springer, dean of engagement and student success at Sacramento City College.

Springer and the California Community College Chancellor's Office said there are a number of Native American support programs in place throughout the community college system. Among them:

  • Mendocino College: Pomo Pathways, a collaboration with the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians Education Center to provide Native students with books, childcare, and other supports.
  • Sierra College: a Native American Resource Room that serves as a campus hub for mentorship, clubs, and Native faculty.
  • San Joaquin Delta College: Native American Family Day, designed to recruit Native students to the campus.
  • Cerro Coso Community College: Native American Education Summit at the Bishop campus to foster collaboration between tribal and non-tribal groups, educational institutions, parents, and students.
  • Cuyamaca College: an associate's degree program in Kumeyaay studies.
  • Fresno City College: Resources for American Indian Needs, an academic and financial support program for Native students. And one of the few campuses in the system to offer a degree in American Indian Studies.

Advocates want more of the system's 114 campuses to have such programs because there are Native Americans at all campuses.
The chancellor's office says the system is helping Native American students through a systemwide program called Vision for Success that pushes campuses to close achievement gaps among all underserved students in the next 10 years -- but there is no system-wide program specific for Native Americans. While the chancellor's office has power over some initiatives, decisions over what services are provided are decided by each college's board of trustees.

In rural communities, Indian tribes may be more visible and more likely to cooperate with college administrators to create support programs. There are larger populations of Native Americans in California's urban centers, Springer said, but urban Native populations are a mixture of local tribes and descendants of American Indians relocated to big cities from different parts of the country through federally-sponsored Indian relocation decades ago. That makes partnerships more difficult to create.

While Springer praises existing programs, she is critical of the way community colleges count Native Americans.

"We want to make sure that those populations are not just counted as multi-ethnic, but that they're actually counted as Native students," Springer said.

The enrollment drop at community colleges is glaring when put next to Native population increases. Nationwide, the American Indian population grew by 26% between 2000 and 2010. In California, Native American population rose 9% between 2000 and 2010. According to the 2018 Census estimate, 1.6% of California's 40 million residents are American Indian.

Strained Relationship With Higher Education

Why should public institutions prioritize services to such a small population? Native Americans' answer includes a centuries-old history of their tribes' relationships with the U.S. Government. They argue that public institutions need to make amends for a long history of policies that stripped tribes of their land and culture.

"There's still a number of people within the Native community that regard a formal education with a bit of resistance, suspicion," said Gerald Clarke, a member of the Cahuilla Band of Indians and an ethnic studies professor at U.C. Riverside. "It wasn't very long ago that Indian children were taken from their homes and sent to federal Indian boarding schools. And, you know, those memories are still alive in a number of our elders and I think that's passed down through the generations."

But Clarke and others say Native students need public educational institutions as much as those institutions need Native Americans. Tribes are sovereign nations that need trained administrators to run them and interact with outside institutions, and the nation at large can learn a lot from Native Americans about topics ranging from environmental sustainability to maintaining family ties and culture.

What questions do you have about Southern California?

Updated November 4, 2019 at 9:00 AM PST
This story was updated to include the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians.