Harley Interpreter misses parts of attending Diné College in person. There would always be someone drumming or singing on the dorm lawns, or a cluster of students playing “shoe games,” trying to find a yucca ball hidden inside sand-filled moccasins.
But the 29-year-old psychology major has also embraced online classes at Diné, located on the Navajo Nation in Arizona, during the Covid-19 pandemic. Learning online has allowed her to care for her aging grandparents, including a grandmother who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and needs help changing her clothes, chopping up her food, and cleaning the home they share.
When Covid hit, “returning home was a no-brainer,” Interpreter said. “It was really flexible.”
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But during the Covid-19 pandemic, the 29-year-old psychology major has also embraced online classes at Diné, on the Navajo Nation reservation, in Arizona. Learning online has allowed her to care for her aging grandparents, including a grandmother with rheumatoid arthritis who needs help changing her clothes, chopping up her food, and cleaning the home they share.
When Covid hit, “returning home was a no-brainer,” Interpreter said. “It was really flexible.”
Two years after tribal colleges shuttered alongside institutions nationwide, many remain largely, if not fully, online, catering to students who’ve historically faced barriers to attending in person. Adult learners — especially single mothers who may struggle to find child care, or those helping to support multigenerational households — make up the majority of students at more than half of the 32 federally recognized institutions in the Tribal Colleges and Universities Program. These colleges are also often located in low-income, rural areas, where hours of daily commute time (and the cost of gas) can prove untenable for students simultaneously working part- or full-time jobs.
Those barriers help explain why, between 2015-19, just 15 percent of American Indian/Alaska Natives ages 25 and older had a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with 32 percent of adults nationwide, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“I have not heard any tribal college say, ‘We’re going back entirely’” in person, said Carrie Billy, president and chief executive of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium. Some have already considerably expanded and diversified their reach; one college reported a more than fivefold increase in the number of tribal nations represented across its student body. “This is an opportunity … a way to reach tribal members and bring them back closer to the community.”
While some tribal colleges did engage a fraction of learners online before Covid, recent public records have hinted at a metamorphosis. At least 14 of the 26 tribal colleges that the Higher Learning Commission oversees asked the accrediting agency in 2021 for formal approval to offer either courses or whole programs online, despite the U.S. Department of Education’s allowing colleges to obtain temporary emergency waivers for remote instruction. Interviews with five tribal-college leaders further revealed long-term intentions to retain and refine online options — a choice that is carefully considered, and informed by data and student feedback.
That approach may offer guidance to colleges nationwide that are weighing the permanence and scope of online ed at their own institutions.
“We have two different things that we need to accomplish now that we didn’t have to do before” Covid. “And that is to provide a strong, solid online platform for people who want that, and also the opportunity to be face to face,” said Paul Robertson, president of Tohono O’odham Community College in Sells, Ariz.
So they’re evaluating. Oglala Lakota College, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, in South Dakota, is reviewing data like course completion rates and faculty surveys to determine how to deliver each of its classes next fall. Tohono O’odham is switching to more synchronous courses after finding students performed better there than in asynchronous courses. Diné College is developing its first online master’s degree, in business, after analyzing undergraduate-enrollment trends and identifying a local economic need for business expertise.
That intentionality is characteristic of tribal colleges, said Michael Oltrogge, president of Nebraska Indian Community College at Macy, which serves the Omaha and Santee Sioux communities.
The colleges “have seen more money than we’ve ever seen” during Covid, he said, including $276 million in targeted funding from Cares, the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations, and the American Rescue Plan. But historically, with no state tax dollars or federal reimbursement for non-Native students, they’re used to working on “shoestring budgets” — a reality that demands evidence-based decision making.
Leaders at these colleges do acknowledge lingering uncertainty about how to sustain affordable broadband for students, though. Tribal lands have historically disparate access, with much of their populace living in rural areas with limited existing infrastructure and high service costs from monopoly providers. Nearly all the administrators The Chronicle spoke to said their colleges are either covering the cost of internet for students or helping subsidize it via emergency-relief distribution, using dwindling amounts of federal Covid aid.
More help is expected. President Biden last fall signed into law an infrastructure bill that adds $2 billion to the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program, with the purpose of building up broadband infrastructure on tribal lands. But when that money will come, and in what installments, is unclear.
“Basing your hopes on the good decision-making of Congress is not the best plan to move forward, but it’s what we got,” said Charles (Monty) Roessel, president of Diné College. “I just have to believe that once people see what’s possible, there’s going to be no going back.”
At Cankdeska Cikana Community College, in Fort Totten, N.D., where about 80 percent of its 250-some students are taking classes in a hybrid format, an estimated three-quarters of respondents to a survey in the summer of 2021 said they preferred online as a delivery model. At Oglala Lakota, which serves more than 1,200 students and remains fully online apart from vocational classes like nursing clinicals, two-thirds expressed partiality to having both virtual and in-person elements.
Students have spoken with their feet, too. While Nebraska Indian Community College this spring started offering an in-person option for about 60 percent of its courses, the hallways emptied over the first few weeks as students opted to tune in via Zoom. Oltrogge estimates that less than 10 percent of the nearly 400 students at NICC are now coming in.
“We give them the option of coming into the classroom, but they choose not to at this point because” online “took away their barriers,” said Jackie Lampert, co-academic dean at Cankdeska Cikana, which serves the Spirit Lake Tribe.
Twenty-four-year-old Sebastian Preston said that while attaining a college degree has always been his dream, he probably wouldn’t have “pulled the trigger” and enrolled at TOCC back in the summer of 2020 had it not been for online classes. (Tuition is also free at the college as of 2020, thanks to financial support from the Tohono O’odham Nation.)
Back then, Preston was working 40 hours a week at the tribal nation’s San Xavier District office, receiving packages and distributing office supplies, to pay for necessities like rent, car payments, internet, and food. The nearly one-hour commute each way to campus for classes would’ve been too burdensome.
Being able to attend online “convinced me that this is good for me, this is perfect for my situation right now,” he said.
For Tosanna Walker, 38, the online option also made restarting her education at NICC possible. As a mother of four living two hours away from campus, virtual classes allowed her to start working toward her associate degree in human services while simultaneously wrangling her kids’ numerous activities — art, karate, football — and working nights as a janitor to pay the bills. She hopes to use her education to become a specialist in the Indian Child Welfare Act for her tribe.
“I got back on track, and with school, it is going great,” she said. The big thing is “just keeping myself accountable.”
Tribal-college leaders noted that they do still want to see a good portion of students back on campus next fall, whether that’s 25 percent, 50 percent, or more. While students may find learning online more convenient, it hasn’t meant all are doing well in those courses. The question has become: What stays online, and what returns?
At Oglala Lakota, student performance has been mixed and is dependent on a range of factors, including subject matter, course level, and the number of students in a given class. Dawn Frank, vice president for instruction, has seen classes like intermediate algebra, where completion rates — the proportion of students earning a C or higher — are up 10 percentage points from pre-pandemic levels. She’s seen others where rates have dropped 20 percentage points.
That data, paired with student and faculty surveys, among other things, is helping administrators determine the modality of each class for next fall semester, whether in person or online. (As of early spring, Oglala Lakota offered three types of synchronous online options alone).
Shirley Spider, an aspiring addiction counselor who’s pursuing a bachelor’s in social work at Oglala Lakota, has taken numerous classes that she knows would have more impact in person. A political-advocacy course she’s taking online this semester, for example, requires students to select bills the South Dakota Legislature is actively reviewing, and defend them before their peers.
Over Zoom, “it doesn’t feel as personal or important,” Spider, 25, said. She struggles to read students’ body language (a skill she takes pride in with in-person interactions). Often, their screens are turned off altogether. “You don’t really know if they’re paying attention or if they’re doing dishes or cooking.”
In some cases, colleges are testing whether keeping a class online but switching the delivery model will be enough to improve students’ experience and performance. At TOCC, for example, completion rates in the fall of 2021 were lower in asynchronous courses than in live, synchronous classes held on Zoom — 44 percent versus 53 percent, respectively. So this fall, the college plans to cut the number of asynchronous courses by 57 percent, while offering 48 percent more synchronous courses.
Nebraska Indian Community College, which has seen its retention and graduation rates decline since the start of the pandemic, is brainstorming new strategies altogether, such as encouraging first-year students to come to campus to “build that groundwork of how to do homework, how to complete assignments,” said Justin Kocian, chief information officer. Oltrogge is considering, too, a basic aptitude and skills assessment that incoming freshmen could take to determine if they have the digital-literacy skills needed to succeed in an online environment.
“We’re going to have to figure out that balancing act between making sure that students are happy with having flexible education choices and actually completing the courses and the degree programs that they enroll in,” Oltrogge said.
His institution, like other tribal colleges, is changing rapidly on account of being accessible online. Pre-pandemic, TOCC served members of some 11 tribal nations. As of this spring semester, it’s 64.
The “jury’s still out,” he said, on whether that change is something to be wary of. “We were concerned that our primary constituents, our Tohono O’odham students, might think things might be really different for them because of all of these different voices,” Robertson said. “But on the contrary, what we’ve found is they’re very excited about having that diversity in the classroom.”
Roessel, at Diné, sees only opportunity. Expanding online offerings, he said, has allowed the college to attract and engage tribal members it hasn’t had access to before (about half of its 400,000 members live outside of the 27,400-square-mile reservation). As of April, they had students enrolled across 31 states, from Alaska to Georgia, compared with 15 states pre-pandemic.
“We have a Navajo-language class that has a student from Puerto Rico, that has a student from Minneapolis, that has a student from Seattle,” he said. “So we’re in the process of going to where we have large populations of Navajo, …. and asking, ‘What kind of programs are you interested in? What is it that we could provide here?’”
“I’m really looking forward to what we can become,” Roessel added. “Not what we were.”
With innovation, though, comes the question of sustainability. And it’s a particularly acute question for tribal colleges, given longstanding troubles with broadband access.
Numerous tribal-college leaders said they worried that neither they nor many of their students can afford to maintain broadband levels suitable for online learning without targeted, continued federal assistance. Many are doing what they can now, with U.S. stimulus money still on hand, to put themselves in the best position possible.
At Diné, some 86 percent of students reported not having reliable internet in the spring of 2020, Roessel said. Part of the college’s response was paying to raise internet-connectivity speeds on its campuses from 400 megabits per second to 3 gigabits per second. The American Indian Higher Education Consortium reported in March that four-year institutions on average operate on 3.5 gigabits per second.
But that difference is costing the college $800,000 more a year — an expense Roessel acknowledged it can’t afford for more than two or three years.
Diné is largely dependent on a single, monopoly provider. So the college is planning to lay its own underground fiber-optic cable throughout its main campus and the western segment of the reservation, hoping to entice another provider to come in and offer service at a more affordable rate. The estimated price tag is between $4 million and $6 million; Diné is courting additional government assistance, and seeking partnerships with local entities, like a K-8 school down the road and a clinic, to share the cost.
NICC is already in such a partnership with local K-12 schools. Beginning in 2020, it received authorization from the Federal Communications Commission to license its 2.5 GHz spectrum; essentially, tapping unused radio waves to provide free internet services to kindergarten through college students. (Similar partnerships are cropping up elsewhere in the country, too).
Even with unknowns, tribal leaders say they’re determined to make progress — hoping to hear fewer accounts like the one Roessel can still clearly recall from a 2020 student survey.
One student had written, “I drive about eight to 10 miles to go on top of a mesa. And then I hike to go on top of a hill. And then, I get a cell signal.”