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Comment: Partnership aids tribal students’ higher ed access

By Tonya Drake / For The Herald

Native American communities continue to face obstacles to educational equity. While 28 percent of the general population holds a college degree, only 13 percent of Native Americans do.

Further, undergraduate and postbaccalaureate enrollment among Native Americans has been declining. At the same time, the number of Native American students attending Tribal colleges and universities has been increasing. In an effort to increase access for members of Tribal communities to continue their education, secure bachelor’s and master’s degrees and compete for in-demand careers, two local higher education institutions are joining forces. The partnership will result in more equitable access to educational opportunities for one of our nation’s most underserved communities.

At the start of the new year, WGU Washington announced a first-of-its-kind partnership with Northwest Indian College (NWIC). The partnership will create pathways for NWIC graduates to continue their education and pursue university degrees at WGU Washington. Additionally, those individuals, plus NWIC staff, will be eligible to apply for the WGU Washington-Northwest Indian College Scholarship, which is valued at up to $3,000.

Being the first Native American (Cowichan) chancellor at WGU, this partnership is of great importance to me. I believe that higher education is one equalizer in a society with growing inequality. WGU Washington and NWIC’s partnership is one stepping stone in eliminating barriers to education that Tribal communities face (i.e., access to admissions requirements, access to resources, lack of reliable internet, financial aid, etc.).

One such barrier is that there is a vast desert of higher educational opportunities laid before Native American students, which requires that they uproot their lives and leave their families to pursue a degree. As a result, there is a great need in higher education to bring learning options to Tribal students so they can stay within their communities. Pursuing a degree online through WGU Washington accomplishes this goal by removing the requirement that students relocate to attend classes in a brick-and-mortar school.

WGU Washington is well-suited for busy, working adults and traditionally underserved student populations. The university provides students with individualized experiences and personalized guidance from dedicated faculty mentors and course instructors; from the time they enroll until they graduate. Further, the university’s accredited competency-based programs assess what students know before they begin online classes, which they can complete at their own speed. Students can earn a variety of relevant degrees in education, health care, business and information technology. WGU Washington also keeps its tuition costs low, offers a variety of scholarships and financial aid options and teaches students the basics of responsible borrowing.

Through education, Northwest Indian College (NWIC) promotes indigenous self-determination and knowledge. NWIC is the only regional Tribal college in the U.S. and the only accredited Tribal college in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU) recently extended NWIC’s accreditation to include distance learning, so students can continue their education remotely. In addition to its primary campus on the Lummi Indian reservation near Bellingham, NWIC also operates six, full-service sites on reservations in Washington and Idaho, including Tulalip, Muckleshoot, Port Gamble S’Klallam, Nez Perce and Swinomish. The College’s student body is represented by more than 130 tribes from across the country.

Our universities working together will ensure that the needs of Native American students are better served and that they have equitable access to higher education.

“We are committed to student success and empowering students to achieve their educational goals, and this partnership will help us accomplish that mission,” said Justin Guillory, president of NWIC. “Our curriculum blends traditional Native culture with relevant college-level courses, skills enhancement and technology to strengthen Tribal nations and make a lasting difference in the lives of the students we serve. Our partnership with WGU Washington will create additional pathways for Native students to earn degrees and certificates and reach their personal and professional goals.”

I am thrilled that WGU Washington and NWIC have come together to increase access to continuing education for Washington state and the broader Northwest region’s Native American students, and I’m eager to see how student lives are transformed through the power of learning.

Dr. Tonya Drake is WGU regional vice president Northwest and WGU Washington chancellor.

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