The TCU Movement

Tribal College Movement logo"Since the beginning, Tribal Colleges have been a study in American Indian tenacity of spirit."

  • —Mary Annette Pember,Tribal College Journal, Winter 2012

For more than 40 years, Tribal Colleges have changed the lives of thousands of students who might otherwise not have pursued higher educations. But leaders within the Tribal College movement have a list of concerns for the future, including changes in Native populations; maintaining and growing ties with culture, language, and traditional values; keeping up with technology; protecting and managing natural resources; encouraging entrepreneurship; finding a true niche in higher education; and instilling passion within students and future tribal college leaders.


The Tribal College movement grew out of the American Indian "self-determination" movement of the 1960s. The first tribally controlled college was established in 1968 by the Navajo Nation. Today the nation's Tribal Colleges consist of 37 TCUs with more than 75 sites in the United States providing access to higher education to over 80 percent of Indian Country, serving more than 100,000 in academic and community-based programs annually. Tribal Colleges started as two-year institutions; but now 13 of the colleges offer bachelor's degrees and five offer master's degrees. All have open admission policies and most are located on remote reservations. In 1994, in recognition of the essential ties between the colleges, tribal lands, and local economic development, Congress designated Tribal Colleges as land grant institutions.

In 2011, Tribal Colleges enrolled over 16,600 students. Tribal College students are typically nontraditional students, with about half over age 25. About 25 percent are single parents; 62 percent are female; and 64 percent attend college on a full-time basis (AIHEC, 2015).

Because most Tribal Colleges are located on reservations (i.e., federal trust territory), local property taxes cannot be levied for their support, and states have no obligation to fund them. Consequently, major funding sources for Tribal Colleges are primarily federal, including the Tribally Controlled College or University Assistance Act of 1978 (TCCUAA), which is administered by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, and Title III of the Higher Education Act. Consequently, Tribal Colleges are chronically underfunded requiring them to charge tuition and fees that on the average are 52 percent higher than those charged by all of the nation's two-year public institutions. In 1996, President Clinton issued a White House Executive Order on Tribal Colleges and Universities that directed all federal departments and agencies to increase their support to these institutions.