Journal of American Indian Education

Volume 23 Number 2
January 1984


by Dennis R. Falk and Larry P. Aitken
University of Minnesota, Duluth


This study identified factors promoting retention of American Indian college students by interviewing 125 students and 11 college personnel. The results indicate that 1) active support of family members, 2) developmental academic preparation, 3) overt institutional commitment, 4) more complete financial aid, and 5) "personal motivation" are the most important factors promoting retention.

THE MINNESOTA CHIPPEWA TRIBE (MCT), in conjunction with faculty and students from the School of Social Development (SSD) at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, recently completed a study to identify priorities for increasing retention among American Indian (hereafter identified as Indian) students. The MCT is composed of six reservations in Northern Minnesota with a total enrollment of approximately 32,000. Since 1970 MCT has contracted with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to provide financial assistance to over 3000 Indian college students, with about 1100 students currently receiving aid.

Personal experience and considerable literature indicate that Indian students experience a high drop out rate in college; specific estimates range from 75-93 percent (McDonald, 1973; Berry, 1968; Auerbach & Fuchs, 1970; Edwards & Smith, 1981). A review of previous literature indicated that the following factors may affect retention: 1) parental and community involvement (Auerback & Fuchs, 1970; Edwards & Smith, 1981), 2) financial support (McDonald, 1973; Auerback & Fuchs, 1970; Berry, 1968), 3) academic preparation in high school (Berry, 1968; Edwards & Smith, 1981), 4) campus support programs for Indian students (Leitka, 1973; Kleinfeld & Kahout, 1965; Patton & Edington, 1973), and 5) value conflicts (McDonald, 1973; Bryde, 1971). Previous research has often focused on a single college or university, with varying degrees of objectivity present in the studies.

The current study sought to systematically and objectively obtain perceptions of Indian students and knowledgeable personnel from several colleges and universities regarding which factors contribute most to retention.


Interviews of two separate groups were conducted. First, a list of 277 students was obtained by randomly sampling 10 percent of the students who had received financial assistance from the MCT. Eighteen trained American Indian interviewers each attempted to contact approximately sixteen persons from this list to arrange for interviews. Most interviews were conducted in person, although some occurred by telephone due to distance. Forty-four percent (125 persons) of the sample were actually interviewed, as it was difficult to locate many on the list and a few preferred not to be interviewed. Interviewees had attended over twenty different colleges, most of them within Minnesota and border states.

The interview schedule was developed by 1) reviewing available literature and developing specific questions, 2) collecting questions from key professionals in Indian education, 3) combining the questions received into a single instrument, and 4) asking tribal representatives to review and suggest modifications. The interview instrument sought information on 1) perceptions of academic preparation, 2) parental and community attitudes, 3) experiences while in college, 4) factors which promoted and hindered success in school, and 5) general background.

A second component of the study involved interviews of eleven educators from institutions where large numbers of MCT students were enrolled. These educators were identified by the MCT Scholarship Officer and included directors or coordinators of Indian studies and/or support programs, financial aid counselors, and Indian student counselors. The educators were asked their views on factors that helped and/or hindered Indian students in their college education and of changes that would assist students in completing college. This survey was conducted by a graduate student in SSD with substantial research background.


Interviews with Indian students

Four questions elicited information about the extent of the respondent's college education and the perceived value of this education. Among this sample, 43% of the students reported that they completed less than one year of college, 39% reported that they completed more than one but less than four years of college, and 18% reported four or more years completed. Of those students who had left college, 26% reported obtaining their undergraduate degree. When asked to rate the overall experience they had while attending college, 67% reported this experience to be either very valuable or valuable, 24% reported the experience to be of some or little value, and only 2% reported the experience to be worthless. Eighty-three percent of the students who left college reported that they would like to return to school if conditions were right.

Students were given lists of approximately twenty factors and asked to identify the three factors which were most significant in promoting retention and the three factors which most hindered retention. The factors most frequently cited are involved in Table 1.

Percentage of Students Citing Specific
Factors Which Promoted or Hindered Retention




Among students completing or still attending college

Among students who left college prior to completion






support of friends (lack of)





adequate financial support (lack of)





parental support (lack of)





individual faculty who cared (lack of)





study skills (lack of)





child care services (lack of)





good academic preparation in high school (poor)





taking a job





tribal support (lack of)





*not included on the list given this group.


In separate questions focusing on pre-college experiences, over 80% of the respondents reported that they received no information from their high school in a variety of areas, including career goals, expectations for college, and budgeting funds. Twenty-one percent of the sample reported that they were either well prepared or very well prepared academically for college level work; 76% reported that they were either somewhat prepared or not at all prepared. When asked about more specific areas, the following results were obtained:

Percentage of Students Prepared
in Various Skill Areas

Generally Prepared

Generally Not Prepared

Reading Skills



Writing Skills



Math Skills



Study Skills



Interpersonal Skills



Thus, study skills, math skills, and writing skills were areas of relatively less adequate preparation.

Several items in the questionnaire contained information about funding for college education. Table 3 indicates the adequacy of funding for specific items.

Percentage of Students Reporting
Adequate Funds for Specific Items

Generally adequate

Generally Inadequate

College in general



Tuition and fees



Books and supplies



Room and board















In response to separate questions approximately two-thirds of the students reported that they generally budgeted their money successfully during their college years, but 66% reported that they could have used assistance with or information about successful budgeting while in college.

Additional analyses used Chi Square statistics and Spearman correlations to determine the relationship between responses to specific questions and the years of retention in college as reported by students. Students who completed more years of school were more likely to 1) enter college with a career goal (X2=6.5, 2d.f., p<.05), 2) attend Indian student organization meetings (4 = .26, p <.01), 3) report that parents supported their field of study (r-. 27, p<.01), and 4) report that parents supported them financially when they needed funds (r=.28, <.01). Years of retention was also positively related to years of education achieved by the student's mother (r=.19, p<.05) and father (4=.25, p<.05).

Interviews with educators

The three factors ranked by educators as the most significant factors contributing to retention among Indian students were 1) good academic preparation in high school, 2) personal motivation, and 3) adequate financial support. Parental support and individual faculty who took an interest in students were other important factors cited.

Lack of personal motivation and lack of good academic preparation in high school received the highest rankings as obstacles in completing the degree. Again, lack of parental support and lack of individual faculty who took an interest in students were considered important factors.

Another set of questions in the survey asked for interviewee opinions on the importance of various institutional efforts aimed at increasing Indian retention. One hundred percent of the respondents thought that "faculty and staff who are American Indians" was either very important or important to the retention of students. Over 90 percent of the interviewees perceived "special counseling programs" as important or very important to the retention of Indian students. Over 75 percent of the interviewees perceived "Indian student organizations" as important or very important, and 69 percent of the respondents perceived "American Indian Studies Programs" as important or very important to Indian retention.

The interviewees were asked an open-ended question to complete the survey: "What would you do to maximize retention of Indian students?" The factor most often mentioned was an overt institutional commitment to improving the retention rate for Indian students, beginning with top administrators and including appropriate programs and services.


Several tentative conclusions will be offered based on the results of this study and on previous literature. While the authors recognize that a variety of changes at all levels of the educational system are essential for improving retention of Indian students, only top priorities for actions which can be initiated at the college level will be described below.

First, the support of family and the Indian community is important to Indian students, and efforts to maintain and expand this type of support may help increase retention among Indian students. Results indicate that the support of their families is a key factor in helping students to remain in school and that there is a relationship between parent's educational background and attitudes on the one hand and years of school completed on the other. Colleges and universities must reach out to Indian families and communities, educate them on their importance to students, and encourage their support for friends and relatives who are currently students.

Secondly, students and educators perceive that Indian students are not adequately prepared in various areas as they begin college; special efforts may be required of higher education institutions until elementary and secondary schools can provide this preparation. While previous research by Berry (1968) and others have identified inadequate academic preparation as a cause of high dropout rates among Indian students, the current study isolated study skills, math skills, budgeting skills, and career information and goals as areas on which developmental efforts should focus. Possible methods of providing for these needs include pre-college workshops held just prior to entering college and special courses/workshops incorporated into initial quarters of college.

Thirdly, it is apparent that institutional commitment beginning with top level administrators and including special staffing and programs is important at colleges and universities that serve Indian students. Indian student organizations, or other groups which provide necessary social support are a key component of this commitment. Indians who serve on the faculty, staff, and administration can provide important support and role models for Indian students. In addition, non-Indian faculty and staff who support and show interest in Indian students are important elements in assisting these students with their college education. While colleges and universities report having many types of supportive services, the fact remains that relatively few students are completing their degrees. The appropriateness and effectiveness of these programs must be examined. Also, while more Indian faculty and staff are present on college campuses, high turnover among these people and lack of Indian administrators are still problems. Recruitment of Indian administrators and retention of all Indian personnel is crucial.

Fourthly, results indicate that financial considerations are the most frequently cited reason for leaving school and that it would be advisable to examine the financial aid package provided for Indian students. The current study went beyond previous efforts in discovering that a majority of students reported that they did not have adequate funding for transportation, clothing, and medical expenses while in college, and child care was also cited as an expense for which funding was not available. Results such as those obtained in this study should be shared in advocating for larger sums to be allocated toward meeting the federal government's commitment to Indian education. Until additional funding is forthcoming, difficult decisions must be made. Fewer, larger grants may allow the students most likely to persist to meet all financial obligations and therefore increase the number who graduate--but the costs to other students must obviously be weighed.

A final factor related to retention that emerged in this study is "personal motivation." The importance placed on this factor suggests that despite institutional, family, and tribal efforts to increase retention, it is still necessary for each student to persevere through difficult times. Perhaps results indicating that students find college valuable in retrospect and that a large majority of students who have left would like to return will provide additional motivation to current students. The value conflicts, identified previously by McDonald (1973), Bryde (1971), and others, may relate to this personal motivation factor, and may be successfully addressed through Indian student organizations and sensitive Indian faculty and staff.

In conclusion, the results of this study suggest that retention among Indian students can be promoted by 1) encouraging parents and the Indian community to support students in their efforts; 2) supplementing college preparation for students, particularly with respect to study, math, and budgeting skills and career development; 3) encouraging overt institutional commitment to Indian education, beginning with top level administrators and including appropriate programs and staffing; 4) providing more complete financial packages, enabling students to cover costs such as transportation and child care; and 5) continuing to remind students of the importance of personal motivation. Additional research could 1) document that these results go beyond the population on which the current study focused and 2) attempt to determine if intentionally addressing these five factors leads to greater retention.


Auerbach, H.H. and Fuchs, E.E. Status of American Indian Education, University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1970, p. 83.

Berry, B. The Education of the American Indian, Washington: U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, 1968, pp. 98-100.

Bryde, J.F. Modern Indian Psychology, Vermillion; South Dakota: The Dakota Press, 1971.

Edwards, E.D. and Smith, L.L Higher education and the American Indian student, Journal of Humanities, May, 1981, pp. 72-85.

Kleinfeld, J.S. and Kahout, K.L. Increasing college success of Alaska Natives, Journal of American Indian Education, May, 1974, pp. 27-31.

Leitka, E. A Study of Effectiveness of Existing Native American Studies Programs in Selected Universities and Colleges, Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation, New Mexico State University, 1973.

McDonald, A. Value conflicts as a cause for drop outs, paper presented at the Native American Teacher Corps Conference, Denver, Colorado, 1973.

Patton, W. and Edington, E.D. Factors related to persistence of Indian students at the college level, Journal of American Indian Education, May 1973, pp. 19-23

Dennis R. Falk is Assistant Professor and Director of Graduate Studies at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, School of Social Development MWAH 295, Duluth, MN 55812.

Larry P. Aitken is currently Director of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota, Duluth and can be reached c/o American Indian Studies, SS109, Duluth MN 55812.

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