Thursday, August 30, 2012

Can Native American College Drop Out Be Decreased?

Native American (NA) students have the highest dropout rate of any high school or college student population.  I can attest to this as a researcher, as a former high school dropout, and as a Native American. Education saved my life.  Now I am working to provide meaningful support to other NAs. I first tried to address the high dropout rate once I completed a doctoral program and began working for the University at Buffalo. I developed a NA research center that was involved in many activities that supported NAs and other students. I set up a scholarship and mentorship mechanism, developed the beginning processes of a study abroad course, and established a NA specific living and learning program.  Currently, I am working on a social belonging intervention at Washington University in St Louis’s Brown School of Social Work. When I am asked to describe programs that provide the best support for NA students and might help them remain in college, I describe living and learning programs, social belonging activities, and providing some level of self-regulated learning curriculums.

NA students dropping out of college throughout the United States are well-documented. Although retention rates differ for all student populations, related to demographics, the gap is greatest specifically among NA students. There are data showing that 75 percent to 93 percent of NA students drop out of college before completing. The number of NA high school drop outs is about the same. It is a sad fact that if NA students do get a high school diploma and enroll in college, they have the highest rate of dropping out from college compared to any other student demographic. Although NA students are academically capable, a number of reasons contribute to this population having the highest educational dropout rate in the U.S.

Instead of more speculation and research, colleges and universities should begin to implement specific strategies that have shown promise in retaining the NA student. There are three I would like to recommend that have some support in research studies and could significantly disrupt the continued problem of college dropout for NAs.

1.      Living & Learning Communities

The idea of connecting and integrating student learning with student living began to take shape under philosopher, university administrator and free speech advocate Alexander Meiklejohn. The theory behind living and learning communities is that students will persist and excel in college if they are given the opportunity to integrate their social and academic lives. According to those who have studied these programs, when students join together around commonly shared academic and/or social interests, their college experience is much more likely to be positive and they are more likely to remain in college. After researching different models of the living and learning programs over many years, it has been determined that regardless of the model’s design, intensity or any other characteristic, living and learning communities significantly impacts student’s college experiences, increases their grade point average (GPA), and increases their retention.  

            Several studies have addressed the issue of family, community, and cultural connectedness and the effect on academic achievement for NA students. Living & learning communities lend themselves to interconnected, supportive environments. NA students should find ways to hold onto their own cultural identities in academic life. Maintaining cultural identity increases students’ self-awareness and the chances that they will remain in and complete college.

2.      Social Belonging Intervention

Social belonging is defined as a perception of having positive relationships with other people within one's community and this sense of social belonging is essential during young adulthood and times when transitioning into a new and unfamiliar community, such as a college campus. Socially stigmatized groups like NA students might be more uncertain about their social belonging in mainstream institutions like college campus than non-minority groups.

In a randomized controlled trial, 49 African American and 43 non-minority first year students in the treatment group received a social belonging message framed in a way that conveyed that college adversity was shared by all students and was short-lived. The researchers were surprised by the magnitude of improvement over the three year period of the study. The social belonging intervention improved GPA, health status, retention, and also reduced doctor visits during students’ time in college.

Native American students, who are the minority within the minority, are most uncertain about their sense of belonging on college campuses. An intervention that specifically targets social belonging will impact them more significantly than non-minorities. When NA students understand that all students feel out of place and question their academic abilities, their own feelings become normalized. This simple, brief, social belonging message, when provided to minority college students, resulted in higher GPA and retention rates, which could greatly impact NAs on college campuses.

3.      Incorporating NA Learning Styles – Self-regulated Learning

In the late 1980s a larger university implemented a unique critical thinking course for undergraduate students. The course primarily focused on cognitive psychology and philosophy issues connected with the theory of Self-regulated Learning (SRL). A review of the data revealed a significant difference in retention and graduation rates, on average, between all students and NA students who took the SRL course and those who did not.

Success Metric
All Students
   NA Students
Retention to Second Year
Retention to Third Year
Retention to Fourth Year
Graduation in 4 Years
Graduation in 5 Years
Graduation in 6 Years
Undergraduate QPA


Native American students who participated in the SRL course, compared to the university’s general population, had higher retention rates as they progressed, higher graduation rates, and a higher overall GPA. The difference between NA students who participated and those not are just as impressive. Native American students who completed the SRL course had higher retention rates, graduation rates, and overall higher GPA scores, compared to NA students who did not participate in the SRL course.

There are three major constructs of SRL theory that are connected across theoretical opinions: (1) the student’s learning style; (2) the student’s ability to influence and predict their daily academic life; and (3) peer assessment and feedback. Considering the high overall success of NA students participating in the SRL course, certain components within the SRL course seem to connect with this population’s thinking and learning styles.  While there has been a debate whether NA students have their own cultural learning styles, thinking and learning is grounded in one’s culture. Because the goals of SRL are to understand one’s own learning style, coordination between teaching and learning strategies could benefit NA students. One of the main reasons for dropouts among NA students is unsuitable matching of learning styles. SRL courses may reduce the conflicting expectations between NA students and instructors.

Concluding Thought


There is still ambiguity about how to address the low retention rates of NA students in U.S. universities. While it is important to continue studying the issues, it is past time to disrupt this on-going tragedy with some scientifically-supported interventions. Living and learning communities, social belonging interventions, and more self-regulated learning opportunities can begin to deflect the process of dropping out of colleges and university programs. To allow the injustices that result from NA student college dropout to continue within our own institutions of learning is unacceptable.

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