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Tribal Colleges: Gains for 'Underfunded Miracles'

When the native-American community makes the news, all too often it is portrayed with a sense of plight.

But a story of renewal and hope has been waiting to be told: native-American colleges.

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From North Dakota to Arizona, tribal colleges have been steadily and quietly making a positive difference in native-American communities.

Documenting their determination is a report released yesterday by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

The report, titled "Native American Colleges: Progress and Prospects," revisits a study done eight years ago by Carnegie and offers evidence of how these colleges, sometimes referred to as "underfunded miracles," have grown and succeeded against great odds.

"Without question, the most significant development in American Indian communities since World War II, was the creation of tribally controlled colleges, institutions of higher learning founded by tribes and governed by Indians," writes Paul Boyer, author of the report, who has studied the colleges for more than a decade. "More than any other single institution, they are changing lives and offering real hope for the future."

Mr. Boyer and his colleagues make the case that today:

* Tribal colleges establish a learning environment that supports students who had come to view failure as the norm.

* They celebrate and help sustain native-American traditions.

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* They provide counseling and recreation services that enrich surrounding communities.

* Tribal colleges are centers for scholarship in such areas as prairie-grasslands management and mental-health services.

The first tribal college was founded in 1968 on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona. Today, there are 27 tribally controlled colleges in the United States, mainly concentrated in the northern Plains and in the Southwest. For the most part, they are two-year community colleges. Resources are limited: Facilities, while deemed "adequate," are often in poor shape and lack updated equipment. Yet more of these colleges are adding four-year and even graduate degrees to their curriculums.

While much of the faculty is American Indian, two-thirds is non-Indian. According to the report, most graduates stay on the reservation, share their knowledge, and serve as role models. Health care and education are popular concentrations.

The colleges' greatest challenge, according to the report, is funding. Native-American colleges do not have a high profile within the higher-education system. And while foundation support has grown in the past 10 years, student populations are rising rapidly. In 1989, enrollment hovered at about 10,000; by 1995 it had doubled to more than 20,000.

Janine Pease Pretty-On-Top, founder and president of Little Big Horn College on the Crow Reservation in Montana, says the Carnegie report presents an exciting opportunity. "It's a voice that adds to ours that is strong and credible."

The first Carnegie report of almost a decade ago was "a new day for us," she explains in a phone interview. Few people - from the general public to Congress - had ever heard of native-American colleges before.

Faculty from tribal colleges had the opportunity to meet with individuals from institutions, foundations, and the private sector - "people who care about other people, community development, and equal access to higher education," Ms. Pretty-0n-Top says. "Within that eight-year period we have really grown and come into fruition." She says she hopes to see similar impact with this study.

The Carnegie report makes recommendations for continued and increased support from the federal government and the private sector. At a press conference yesterday, the Kellogg Foundation announced a $22.2 million grant to help tribal colleges and mainstream institutions that enroll a significant number of native American students.

"One has to put this in a context of Americans' historical and moral responsibility," says Bob Hochstein, a Carnegie Foundation spokesman. He recalls asking one Native American student what his college needed, and the student responded, "heat."

Another recommendation from Carnegie and leaders like Pretty-On-Top is that mainstream schools partner with tribal colleges. "We also have the potential to contribute to the scholarship in the world," she says, "and be rightful members of that academy."

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