Transition: The journey from tribal colleges to four-year institutions

Jeanette R. Gravdahl
Educational Leadership, University of North Dakota
December, 2011


The purpose of this study was to gain an understanding of the transfer journey and transition faced by Native American students transferring from a tribal college to a four-year institution. This qualitative study sought to find out what could be done by tribal colleges, receiving four-year institutions, family, and tribes to make the path smoother. Fourteen former Little Hawk tribal college students participated in the study. They had earned at least 30 credits at Little Hawk tribal college, and transferred to one of two four-year institutions. The participants were all non-traditional students but their experiences differed depending on the institution they attended. The students that went to University of Somewhere were full-time students. Those that went to Anywhere College were part-time. The characteristics of the two institutions are quite different which resulted in different experiences. The participants' stories were recorded using the qualitative research method of storytelling. From the data two themes emerged, factors of adjustment and transition forces. Three categories emerged from the factors of adjustment theme: (a) academic adjustment, (b) social adjustment, and (c) personal adjustment. Two categories emerged from the transition forces theme: (a) forces that deterred and (b) forces that assisted. Some of the recommendations derived from this study include: 1. Establish a position for a transfer officer to obtain articulation agreements, advise students, develop a curriculum for transfer, and provide encouragement. 2. Develop a course in the curriculum for transfer students. 3. Have an education coordinator to be a contact person after transferring to assist the student. 4. Tribal college faculty provide more rigorous instruction and writing across the curriculum. 5. Tribal colleges and four-year institutions collaborate, have an articulation agreement, and work together on other transfer issues. 6. Have role models and mentors for transfer students. 7. The majority of students experienced hardships. The participants in the study had a strong desire for an education to better sustain their family, their extended family, and their tribe. They seem to have "fire in the belly" although some seemed to have had a brighter light than others. Even though they experienced major hardships, they still persevered.