American Indian college success at a mainstream university: Facilitators and barriers to academic attainment

Scott D. Fleming
College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences, South Dakota State University
July, 2010


This study is an ethnographic exploration into the barriers to academic attainment and the factors that facilitate retention and graduation for American Indian students at a predominantly White university in the upper Midwest.
Works in critical education theory and critical race theory provide the framework for the investigation. Reference group theory provides the basis for investigating the role played by a 'third place' as a safe environment where American Indian college students can affiliate with a normative reference group that shares common cultural capital that aids in navigation through the university environment.
The ethnographic research methods of intensive interviews, focus groups, and participant observation with university administrators, faculty, staff, and students are used to gather data. Quantitative data on university enrollment, retention, and graduation by race/ethnicity is also presented.
Findings show among the most salient facilitators, support is the most significant, followed by culture and financial resources. Among the most powerful barriers, the most salient was found to be institutional barriers, followed by a lack of support, poor high school preparation, and the lack of opportunities for cultural expression and participation.
Implications and recommendations for the pragmatic application of findings to the field of higher education for American Indian students are discussed.
Recommendations for further study are included.