Why So Few American Indians Earn Ph.D.'s, and What Colleges Can Do About It

Aaron P. Bernstein for The Chronicle

Darryl Reano, honored with a ceremonial blanket at Purdue U.’s Native American Educational and Cultural Center upon his graduation, will start a Ph.D. program in geology and geoscience education this fall.
May 27, 2014

Darryl Reano struggled with guilt in graduate school at Purdue University, some 1,400 miles away from his home, in Acoma Pueblo, N.M. There, on his reservation, near a mesa west of Albuquerque, his aunt was dying. "She was on dialysis, and here I was earning my master’s degree," he says. "I wasn’t around to give my mom a hug. That’s what hurt the most."

Mr. Reano, who is set to start a Ph.D. program in geology and geoscience education this fall, struggled with feelings familiar to those of many American Indians who leave their reservations to pursue higher education. Graduate education in particular, which demands late nights spent in labs and libraries, can take a psychological toll on students whose identities are so deeply tied to families and communities.

Those ties are a major reason that American Indians earn a troublingly low number of doctorates, say educators and advocates. Other factors are thought to include the extreme poverty typical of many tribal communities, a lack of faculty role models, and a financially challenged tribal-college system.

American Indians earned just 102 doctorates in 2012­­­—even fewer than the 149 they earned 20 years before, according to the National Science Foundation’s Survey of Earned Doctorates. American Indians and Alaska Natives represented 1.2 percent of the U.S. population in 2012 but earned just 0.3 percent of the doctorates awarded to U.S. citizens and permanent residents. They were the only minority group that did not earn more doctorates—or increase their share of all doctorates earned—over the past two decades.

While many observers are still dissatisfied with gains made by blacks and Hispanics, members of each of those groups earned about 6 percent of doctorates in 2012. (They represented about 13 percent and 17 percent of the population, respectively.) Twenty years ago, blacks earned 4 percent and Hispanics 3 percent of all doctorates.

American Indians have made progress at the bachelor’s- and master’s-degree levels. They earned nearly twice as many bachelor’s degrees in 2012—10,743—than two decades earlier, and nearly three times as many master’s degrees—3,275. Their share of those degrees also grew slightly during that time.

So why haven’t those gains translated into more Ph.D.’s?

"The educational pipeline for American Indian students is pretty well built at the undergraduate level," says Aislinn HeavyRunner-Rioux, a doctoral student in educational leadership at the University of Montana at Missoula. Her proposed dissertation will examine American Indian persistence in graduate education. "It’s strengthening at the master’s level. It’s still being built at the doctoral level."

Ms. HeavyRunner-Rioux’s own trek through the education system illustrates the isolation, importance of family bonds, and financial struggles that can deter American Indians from pursuing doctorates. After her mother died of cancer, she struggled emotionally and financially, dropping out of college for five years. She eventually made it to graduate school but had to choose between providing child care for her two young daughters or health care for herself. It was hardly a choice. She chose child care and learned to navigate the services of the student health center when she had a medical issue.

Now, she is using her own background to devise a survey that she hopes will help explain why so few American Indians pursue doctorates. "How can I get other Native students to where I’m at?" she says. "What piece of the puzzle could I help put in place to help more students get further along in this journey?

"I just want to know what works."

Some groups have an idea about what works. Since 2003 the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has given more than $17-million to a handful of colleges seeking to increase the number of American Indians pursuing master’s and doctoral degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math. The group is especially underrepresented in the physical sciences and engineering, earning just 13 of more than 8,000 doctorates awarded in those fields in 2012.

Colleges in the Sloan Indigenous Graduate Partnership use the money to provide financial support for students—paying for travel home for local ceremonies, for instance—and to create programs that can alleviate their sense of isolation on campus. Member institutions include the University of Alaska’s Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses, the University of Arizona, the University of Montana at Missoula, Montana Tech of the University of Montana, and Purdue University.

American Indian students are also more likely to be "nontraditional" students. A recent survey of current students in the Sloan partnership found that 25 percent were 35 or older, about 40 percent had dependent children, and 15 percent were supporting extended-family members other than their children or partner, says Maria Teresa Velez, an associate dean at the graduate college of the University of Arizona, where the Sloan program began.

"They place a very high priority on family, social network, and community obligations," she says.

Before the Sloan program began at Purdue, in 2007, an American Indian student earned a master’s or doctorate in a STEM field every two years or so, says Kenneth Ridgway, an earth-sciences professor there who is a director of the Sloan program at Purdue. Since then, 17 American Indian students taking part in the program at Purdue have earned such degrees, and 12 are now enrolled. Only three students have withdrawn. Mr. Ridgway attributes the high retention rate to the program’s focus on fostering community and matching students with the right research interests and supportive professors.

As part of the Sloan program, Purdue also created an educational and cultural center on the campus, where American Indian students can hang out. Graduate students meet regularly there to discuss their research projects and learn about the nuts and bolts of graduate school, like how to form a thesis committee and develop essential skills that first-generation graduate students may lack.

"It’s important to have a place like that," Mr. Ridgway says. "Most Native Americans don’t see where they fit into America’s universities."

To help them make those connections, Purdue faculty members visit tribal communities to better explain how university research can improve tribal lands and the lives of American Indians. A faculty member might explain Purdue’s studies of sand-dune migration on the Navajo reservation, for example, or efforts to restore the weasel-like pine marten to the woods of Wisconsin.

"We say, ‘Look, these are issues your communities are facing, and you need to have your own community members have the expertise to make these decisions,’ " Mr. Ridgway says. "When you put it in that context, then the elders and students start to say, ‘OK, this is worth getting a graduate degree.’ That’s the first thing we need to do: Just make communities aware."

Mr. Ridgway attributes those efforts to the growth in bachelor’s and master’s degrees among American Indians. But multiple factors have kept that success from extending to the Ph.D. level, he says.

"A Ph.D. basically means you have to go away from the reservation or your community for years, and they don’t see the direct connection about how it helps their community," he says. "People raised in a traditional way evaluate whether they are successful not by whether they have a Ph.D., but by how much they have helped their community. That might be part of the disconnect you see there."

Carrie Billy, president of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, which lobbies for more federal money for tribal colleges, is hopeful that the doctoral numbers will increase. She cited the gains made by American Indians at the bachelor’s and master’s level, including in STEM fields. As this infrastructure for American Indian higher education solidifies, she expects it to expand to doctoral programs.

"We have made tremendous strides since tribal colleges started to be established in the 1960s," she says.

Of the consortium’s 37 tribal colleges, which offer mostly two-year degrees, 13 now have bachelor’s programs, five have master’s programs, and one, Navajo Technical University, is laying the groundwork for the first doctoral program at a tribal college.

If you look at the evolution of historically black colleges and universities and even mainstream institutions, Ms. Billy says, "we’re kind of on that same evolutionary track, trying to grow as quickly as we can."

Institutions That Awarded the Most Doctorates to American Indians, 2008-12

Rank Institution Doctorate recipients
1 U. of Arizona 28
2 Oklahoma State U. at Stillwater 25
3 U. of California at Berkeley 17
3 U. of Minnesota-Twin Cities 17
5 Arizona State U. 16
5 U. of Oklahoma at Norman 16
7 U. of Kansas 12
7 U. of New Mexico at Albuquerque 12
7 U. of Wisconsin at Madison 12
10 U. of Texas at Austin 11
10 U. of Washington 11
12 U. of North Dakota 10
13 Purdue U. main campus 9
14 U. of California at Davis 8
14 Virginia Tech 8
16 U. of Arkansas at Fayetteville 7
16 U. of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 7
16 U. of North Texas 7
16 U. of Southern California 7
16 Washington State U. 7
Top 20 institutions 247
All institutions reported (201) 629
Note: Figures include Alaska Natives.
Source: Survey of Earned Doctorates by the National Science Foundation and five other federal agencies