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Tribal Colleges and Universities in the United States: What They Are, Who They Serve, and Why They Matter

Taylor Nichols

Written By: Taylor Nichols

Published: 11/17/2022

Photo courtesy of Northwest Indian College

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Every year, millions of students enroll in colleges and universities across the country. Most often, Indigenous students make up a small percentage of their student body. However, many students opt to go to tribal colleges and universities, where the majority of students are Native American.

Before tribal colleges were established in 1968, Native American students had few options for a culturally relevant education. Most college efforts for American Indian students in decades past were focused on Christianizing or vocational training. When tribal colleges were developed in the late 1960s, tribes created schools to serve their students, with services that met the unique needs of their communities.

What Is a Tribal College?

Tribal colleges are schools that are owned and operated by Native American tribes in the U.S. There are 35 accredited tribal colleges in the United States, mostly located on or near reservations in the northern states and Southwest.

While most TCUs are community colleges where the majority of students earn associate degrees and certificates, 19 tribal colleges offer bachelor's degrees. 

There are only a few four-year tribal colleges that award more bachelor's degrees than associate degrees: Haskell Indian Nations University in Kansas, the Institute of American Indian and Alaska Native Culture and Arts Development in New Mexico, and Sinte Gleska University in South Dakota.

Tribal colleges primarily serve American Indian and Alaska Native students, but students from other demographics can also attend. Most tribal colleges serve some students who are white, Black, Latinx, or another race.

TCUs receive limited funding from the federal government, but do not receive state funding like other public colleges do. They operate on a fairly limited budget, receiving just over $8,000 per American Indian student, although few schools serve a student population that is 100% Native American.

Why Do Tribal Colleges Matter?

Tribal colleges and universities play an important role in their communities. They are often located in rural areas where students don't have other options for college nearby, and tend to serve students from lower-income families. Native American students are more likely to come from a lower-income family, and are often the first in their family to go to college. These and other factors are often barriers to higher education for many students, and make accessible higher education options even more important.

One big reason why Native American students might attend a tribal college is representation, support, and student success on campus. Tribal colleges also offer culturally relevant curriculums, languages, and traditions that are often lacking on other campuses. A report from Gallup and the American Indian College Fund shows that students who graduate from TCUs tend to have better college experiences than other graduates nationally and than American Indian students at other schools.

These schools are also an important resource for Indigenous students and their communities — Gallup and the College Fund found that 74% of TCU graduates go onto careers related to American Indian communities, tribal lands, or work for the tribes themselves.


"Being at a tribal college, I feel connected. I'm learning tradition, I'm learning about my culture," said Northwest Indian College student Monica Little, a member of the Lummi Nation. "I think those teachings are important for us to find our sense of place in the community. I've learned so much about my native history that's just made my academic journey more interesting."


List of Tribal Colleges and Universities in the United States
School Enrollment (2020- 21) Tuition and fees (2021- 22) Percent Native American Pell Grant Recipients Hybrid/Online (2020- 21) Retention Rate
Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College
MN
1,975 $5,815 8% 18% 25% 51%
Navajo Technical University
NM
1,882 $4,070 96% 57% 20% 71%
Dine College
AZ
1,872 $1,410 98% 48% 100% 50%
Oglala Lakota College
SD
1,626 $2,684 95% 55% 100% 63%
Tohono O'Odham Community College
AZ
1,574 $932 89% 12% 100% 47%
Sinte Gleska University
SD
1,194 $3,154 87% 91% 0% 100%
Institute of American Indian and Alaska Native Culture and Arts Development
NM
951 $5,321 66% 24% 95% 44%
Salish Kootenai College
MT
900 $6,399 75% 61% 70% 67%
Haskell Indian Nations University
KS
824 $480 100% 49% 100% No Data
Northwest Indian College
WA
768 $3,969 79% 23% 91% 46%
Fort Peck Community College
MT
729 $2,250 78% 27% 0.82% 32%
Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute
NM
625 $1,095 100% 33% 100% 46%
Bay Mills Community College
MI
620 $3,320 57% 39% 89% 50%
Turtle Mountain Community College
ND
616 $2,338 97% 59% 100% 63%
Little Big Horn College
MT
527 $3,200 97% 7% 0% 24%
Stone Child College
MT
523 $2,645 98% 47% 0% 50%
Blackfeet Community College
MT
498 $3,610 94% 51% 0% 82%
Nebraska Indian Community College
NE
473 $4,080 84% 37% 72% 63%
Ilisagvik College
AK
465 $4,780 67% 12% 60% No Data
College of the Muscogee Nation
OK
440 $6,600 81% 40% 0% 54%
Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe College
WI
420 $4,590 82% 61% 37% 83%
United Tribes Technical College
ND
400 $4,252 94% 73% 18% No Data
Cankdeska Cikana Community College
ND
314 $3,950 85% 60% 89% 19%
Sitting Bull College
ND
311 $4,010 91% 61% 67% No Data
Chief Dull Knife College
MT
274 $2,260 84% No Data No Data No Data
Sisseton Wahpeton College
SD
272 $4,510 81% 46% 88% 35%
College of Menominee Nation
WI
265 $6,200 86% 57% 79% No Data
Aaniiih Nakoda College
MT
239 $2,410 88% 74% 0% No Data
White Earth Tribal and Community College
MN
207 $4,676 68% 77% 56% 48%
Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College
ND
205 $3,870 77% 31% 0% No Data
Little Priest Tribal College
NE
186 $5,140 80% 65% 85% 18%
Leech Lake Tribal College
MN
169 $4,850 80% 73% 100% 56%
Saginaw Chippewa Tribal College
MI
146 $2,210 77% 39% 0% 29%
Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Community College
MI
137 $4,400 50% 52% 99% 59%
Red Lake Nation College
MN
125 $5,920 86% 62% 96% 43%

List of Tribal Colleges and Universities in the United States

Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College

State: MN

Enrollment (2020-21): 1,975

Tuition and fees (2021-22): $5,815

Percent Native American: 8%

Pell Grant Recipients: 18%

Hybrid/Online (2020-21): 25%

Retention Rate: 51%

Navajo Technical University

State: NM

Enrollment (2020-21): 1,882

Tuition and fees (2021-22): $4,070

Percent Native American: 96%

Pell Grant Recipients: 57%

Hybrid/Online (2020-21): 20%

Retention Rate: 71%

Dine College

State: AZ

Enrollment (2020-21): 1,872

Tuition and fees (2021-22): $1,410

Percent Native American: 98%

Pell Grant Recipients: 48%

Hybrid/Online (2020-21): 100%

Retention Rate: 50%

Oglala Lakota College

State: SD

Enrollment (2020-21): 1,626

Tuition and fees (2021-22): $2,684

Percent Native American: 95%

Pell Grant Recipients: 55%

Hybrid/Online (2020-21): 100%

Retention Rate: 63%

Tohono O'Odham Community College

State: AZ

Enrollment (2020-21): 1,574

Tuition and fees (2021-22): $932

Percent Native American: 89%

Pell Grant Recipients: 12%

Hybrid/Online (2020-21): 100%

Retention Rate: 47%

Sinte Gleska University

State: SD

Enrollment (2020-21): 1,194

Tuition and fees (2021-22): $3,154

Percent Native American: 87%

Pell Grant Recipients: 91%

Hybrid/Online (2020-21): 0%

Retention Rate: 100%

Institute of American Indian and Alaska Native Culture and Arts Development

State: NM

Enrollment (2020-21): 951

Tuition and fees (2021-22): $5,321

Percent Native American: 66%

Pell Grant Recipients: 24%

Hybrid/Online (2020-21): 95%

Retention Rate: 44%

Salish Kootenai College

State: MT

Enrollment (2020-21): 900

Tuition and fees (2021-22): $6,399

Percent Native American: 75%

Pell Grant Recipients: 61%

Hybrid/Online (2020-21): 70%

Retention Rate: 67%

Haskell Indian Nations University

State: KS

Enrollment (2020-21): 824

Tuition and fees (2021-22): $480

Percent Native American: 100%

Pell Grant Recipients: 49%

Hybrid/Online (2020-21): 100%

Retention Rate: No Data

Northwest Indian College

State: WA

Enrollment (2020-21): 768

Tuition and fees (2021-22): $3,969

Percent Native American: 79%

Pell Grant Recipients: 23%

Hybrid/Online (2020-21): 91%

Retention Rate: 46%

Fort Peck Community College

State: MT

Enrollment (2020-21): 729

Tuition and fees (2021-22): $2,250

Percent Native American: 78%

Pell Grant Recipients: 27%

Hybrid/Online (2020-21): 0.82%

Retention Rate: 32%

Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute

State: NM

Enrollment (2020-21): 625

Tuition and fees (2021-22): $1,095

Percent Native American: 100%

Pell Grant Recipients: 33%

Hybrid/Online (2020-21): 100%

Retention Rate: 46%

Bay Mills Community College

State: MI

Enrollment (2020-21): 620

Tuition and fees (2021-22): $3,320

Percent Native American: 57%

Pell Grant Recipients: 39%

Hybrid/Online (2020-21): 89%

Retention Rate: 50%

Turtle Mountain Community College

State: ND

Enrollment (2020-21): 616

Tuition and fees (2021-22): $2,338

Percent Native American: 97%

Pell Grant Recipients: 59%

Hybrid/Online (2020-21): 100%

Retention Rate: 63%

Little Big Horn College

State: MT

Enrollment (2020-21): 527

Tuition and fees (2021-22): $3,200

Percent Native American: 97%

Pell Grant Recipients: 7%

Hybrid/Online (2020-21): 0%

Retention Rate: 24%

Stone Child College

State: MT

Enrollment (2020-21): 523

Tuition and fees (2021-22): $2,645

Percent Native American: 98%

Pell Grant Recipients: 47%

Hybrid/Online (2020-21): 0%

Retention Rate: 50%

Blackfeet Community College

State: MT

Enrollment (2020-21): 498

Tuition and fees (2021-22): $3,610

Percent Native American: 94%

Pell Grant Recipients: 51%

Hybrid/Online (2020-21): 0%

Retention Rate: 82%

Nebraska Indian Community College

State: NE

Enrollment (2020-21): 473

Tuition and fees (2021-22): $4,080

Percent Native American: 84%

Pell Grant Recipients: 37%

Hybrid/Online (2020-21): 72%

Retention Rate: 63%

Ilisagvik College

State: AK

Enrollment (2020-21): 465

Tuition and fees (2021-22): $4,780

Percent Native American: 67%

Pell Grant Recipients: 12%

Hybrid/Online (2020-21): 60%

Retention Rate: No Data

College of the Muscogee Nation

State: OK

Enrollment (2020-21): 440

Tuition and fees (2021-22): $6,600

Percent Native American: 81%

Pell Grant Recipients: 40%

Hybrid/Online (2020-21): 0%

Retention Rate: 54%

Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe College

State: WI

Enrollment (2020-21): 420

Tuition and fees (2021-22): $4,590

Percent Native American: 82%

Pell Grant Recipients: 61%

Hybrid/Online (2020-21): 37%

Retention Rate: 83%

United Tribes Technical College

State: ND

Enrollment (2020-21): 400

Tuition and fees (2021-22): $4,252

Percent Native American: 94%

Pell Grant Recipients: 73%

Hybrid/Online (2020-21): 18%

Retention Rate: No Data

Cankdeska Cikana Community College

State: ND

Enrollment (2020-21): 314

Tuition and fees (2021-22): $3,950

Percent Native American: 85%

Pell Grant Recipients: 60%

Hybrid/Online (2020-21): 89%

Retention Rate: 19%

Sitting Bull College

State: ND

Enrollment (2020-21): 311

Tuition and fees (2021-22): $4,010

Percent Native American: 91%

Pell Grant Recipients: 61%

Hybrid/Online (2020-21): 67%

Retention Rate: No Data

Chief Dull Knife College

State: MT

Enrollment (2020-21): 274

Tuition and fees (2021-22): $2,260

Percent Native American: 84%

Pell Grant Recipients: No Data

Hybrid/Online (2020-21): No Data

Retention Rate: No Data

Sisseton Wahpeton College

State: SD

Enrollment (2020-21): 272

Tuition and fees (2021-22): $4,510

Percent Native American: 81%

Pell Grant Recipients: 46%

Hybrid/Online (2020-21): 88%

Retention Rate: 35%

College of Menominee Nation

State: WI

Enrollment (2020-21): 265

Tuition and fees (2021-22): $6,200

Percent Native American: 86%

Pell Grant Recipients: 57%

Hybrid/Online (2020-21): 79%

Retention Rate: No Data

Aaniiih Nakoda College

State: MT

Enrollment (2020-21): 239

Tuition and fees (2021-22): $2,410

Percent Native American: 88%

Pell Grant Recipients: 74%

Hybrid/Online (2020-21): 0%

Retention Rate: No Data

White Earth Tribal and Community College

State: MN

Enrollment (2020-21): 207

Tuition and fees (2021-22): $4,676

Percent Native American: 68%

Pell Grant Recipients: 77%

Hybrid/Online (2020-21): 56%

Retention Rate: 48%

Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College

State: ND

Enrollment (2020-21): 205

Tuition and fees (2021-22): $3,870

Percent Native American: 77%

Pell Grant Recipients: 31%

Hybrid/Online (2020-21): 0%

Retention Rate: No Data

Little Priest Tribal College

State: NE

Enrollment (2020-21): 186

Tuition and fees (2021-22): $5,140

Percent Native American: 80%

Pell Grant Recipients: 65%

Hybrid/Online (2020-21): 85%

Retention Rate: 18%

Leech Lake Tribal College

State: MN

Enrollment (2020-21): 169

Tuition and fees (2021-22): $4,850

Percent Native American: 80%

Pell Grant Recipients: 73%

Hybrid/Online (2020-21): 100%

Retention Rate: 56%

Saginaw Chippewa Tribal College

State: MI

Enrollment (2020-21): 146

Tuition and fees (2021-22): $2,210

Percent Native American: 77%

Pell Grant Recipients: 39%

Hybrid/Online (2020-21): 0%

Retention Rate: 29%

Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Community College

State: MI

Enrollment (2020-21): 137

Tuition and fees (2021-22): $4,400

Percent Native American: 50%

Pell Grant Recipients: 52%

Hybrid/Online (2020-21): 99%

Retention Rate: 59%

Red Lake Nation College

State: MN

Enrollment (2020-21): 125

Tuition and fees (2021-22): $5,920

Percent Native American: 86%

Pell Grant Recipients: 62%

Hybrid/Online (2020-21): 96%

Retention Rate: 43%

Source: IPEDS

About the Data

Percentage of Students Who Are American Indian or Alaska Native

While American Indian and Alaska Native students tend to be underrepresented on many college campuses, tribal colleges primarily serve Native American students.

Nearly every tribal college serves a majority of American Indian and Alaska Native students. At non-tribal colleges, less than 1% of students are Native American.

Haskell Indian Nations University, Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute, and Stone Child College serve the highest rate of Native American students. Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College serves the lowest rate at 8%, and is the only tribal college where less than half of the student body is Native American.

Online Classes at Tribal Colleges

Many tribal colleges have quickly adapted to serve online communities, with 10 schools serving more than half of their students fully online in 2020-21. Another 10 colleges had at least half of students enrolled in both online and in-person programs for the same year. Nine TCUs reported no students enrolled in distance education classes for the 2020-21 school year.

Enrollment at Tribal Colleges

Tribal colleges tend to serve smaller student bodies, with enrollment ranging from 125 students at Red Lake Nation College to 1,975 students at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College in the 2020-21 school year.

The top five largest tribal colleges by enrollment are below.

Top 5 Tribal Colleges by Enrollment Size
School Total enrollment (2020-21)
Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College 1,975
Navajo Technical University 1,882
Dine College 1,872
Oglala Lakota College 1,626
Tohono O'Odham Community College 1,574

Source: IPEDS

Tribal colleges enroll few graduate students, if any. Only five colleges had graduate students in the 2020-21 school year.

Tribal Colleges with Graduate Enrollment
School Graduate Enrollment (2020-21)
Sinte Gleska University 155
Oglala Lakota College 48
Institute of American Indian and Alaska Native Culture and Arts Development 44
Sitting Bull College 28
Navajo Technical University 13

Source: IPEDS

Percentage of Undergraduate Students Receiving the Pell Grant

At least half of students at most tribal colleges receive the Pell Grant, which usually goes to students with family incomes of $60,000 or less per year. The tribal colleges with the most Pell students are Aaniiih Nakoda College in Montana, Leech Lake Tribal College in Minnesota, and Sitting Bull College in North Dakota. Four out of five undergraduate students at these colleges used the Pell Grant to pay for school in the 2019-20 school year.

Ilisagvik College in Alaska and Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College in Minnesota serve the lowest rate of Pell students, with less than 25% receiving the grant.

Retention Rates

Retention rates show how many students who enrolled in college the year before returned the next fall. They can help give a sense of how well students are doing and can serve as an early indicator of what graduation rates might look like down the road. Things like strong support services and quality programs help keep students enrolled and making good progress toward their degree.

Retention rates for tribal colleges varied widely in Fall 2020, ranging from 18% to 100%. The average retention rates for tribal colleges and non-tribal colleges were both about 69% for students returning in Fall 2020, meaning these schools had similar rates of students returning from the year before.

Top Programs at Tribal Colleges

The most popular majors for graduates of tribal colleges are business administration, liberal arts and sciences, general studies, and American Indian studies, based on IPEDS data for the graduating classes of 2021.

Native American Student Support at Tribal Colleges

Research from Gallup and the College Fund shows that tribal college graduates tend to get better support and have a better college experience than students from other schools.

So what are tribal colleges doing differently? Students at tribal colleges are more likely to say they had encouraging mentors, and professors who cared about them and made them excited to learn while in college. Many students also benefit from culturally relevant traditions and curriculums on campus.

Monica Little said an important aspect of her success is how family-oriented her campus is. She is a single parent with three kids, and she doesn't think she would have thrived at another college.

"When I decided to go back to college, I knew that I needed something that would cater to my needs," she said. "It's just not as easy to be as committed as other colleges asked. But instead of not being able to be committed at Northwest Indian College, it's family-friendly."

Little said students are encouraged to bring their families to student events and activities. She was also able to bring her kids with her to campus when she did volunteer hours and an internship over the summer. These accommodations help students succeed in school, alongside benefits like the option for virtual classes, peer tutoring, support programs for personal growth and life skills, 24/7 mental health services, and emergency funding.



Students at tribal colleges are more likely to say they had encouraging mentors, and professors who cared about them and made them excited to learn while in college.

Scholarships for Native American Students and Tribal Colleges

There are many grants, scholarships, and other funding sources available to help students at tribal colleges pay for school. One of the biggest sources of funding is federal aid, which students can apply for by filling out the FAFSA. This one application may help students get financial aid like the Pell Grant, state funding, and scholarships from their school.

Native American students can also apply for grants and scholarships from the Bureau of Indian Affairs:

For students interested in working in healthcare, the Indian Health Service program offers three scholarship programs to help fund students who plan to go into health professions to help staff Native American healthcare systems.

The American Indian College Fund is another scholarship resource for students. The program awards scholarships to American Indian and Alaska Native college students pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees. The fund also offers additional scholarship dollars for students who attend a tribal college.

These scholarships are limited to full-time students, and applicants will need to include their tribal affiliation (either proof of tribal enrollment/Certificate Degree of Indian Blood card or a parent or grandparent's enrollment and the student's birth certificate).

Confused about financial aid? See our Guide to Financial Aid for Online Students.

Bottom Line

Tribal colleges play an important role in their communities and are uniquely able to offer an education rooted in Native American culture and tradition. They also make sure tribes, reservations, and those living in rural areas have access to affordable higher education options and can offer a student-centered college experience.

Tribal colleges and universities might be a good fit for students who are interested in learning more about Native American tribes, traditions, culture, and history, especially tribal members or those with American Indian heritage.

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