About 120 American Indians earned their degrees from the University of Montana this year. That’s impressive, considering that less than 40 years ago only about 180 American Indians received bachelor’s degrees annually nationwide.
Patrick Weasel Head, director of UM’s Department of American Indian Student Services, says this year’s class of graduating American Indians is one of the largest ever.
“We’ve had about 60 or 70 before, but anything over triple digits is high,” says Weasel Head.
UM hasn’t always kept statistical data, so it’s hard to say for sure if more American Indians received degrees this year than ever before, but the numbers are clearly on the upswing.
According to the American Council on Education’s Status Report on Minorities in Education, Montana has seen dramatic increases in the number of degrees conferred to American Indians over the last decade. During the 1991–92 academic year, 138 American Indians received associate’s degrees in Montana, and 105 received bachelor’s degrees. By 2001–02, 255 received associate’s degrees (an 84-percent increase) and 188 received bachelor’s degrees (a 79-percent increase).
Nationally, American Indians achieved gains in all degree categories over the last 10 years, with the most significant increase at the master’s level, with a 97.1 percent increase in the number of those degrees earned.
According to Joseph McDonald, president of the Salish Kootenai College in Pablo, one reason UM has had such success at graduating American Indians is UM President George Dennison’s efforts to recruit them.
“[Dennison] has made a real point to increase the number of American Indian students enrolled at the University of Montana,” says McDonald. “George got a caravan of faculty together a few years ago and went to every tribal college in the state.”
While college graduation numbers are on the rise, American Indians still face many educational challenges. Weasel Head says it takes the average Indian student about six years to earn a degree, due to factors ranging from financial woes to family matters.
“We are trying to find out what those factors are,” says Weasel Head. “Then we try to find some solutions so we can get students to complete their degrees on time.”