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Native American College Planning Considerations: Part 3

Cultural Supports

Native American College Planning Considerations: Part 3 - Cultural Support

Native American college planning is a specialized area of concentration in school counseling and college counseling, which includes the exploring cultural supports for Native students on campus.  Providing this type of service requires specific training and expertise in culturally responsive counseling. Consider this recent Minnesota School Counselor Association article entitled Cultivating Cultural Responsiveness addressing this practice.

"Culturally responsive counseling means that school counselors identify, recognize and utilize the cultural strengths of students to increase positive outcomes."

In this CollegeBound Journey article series, we will address the four areas that support Native American college planning.  In Part One, we explored Academic Opportunities, and in Part Two, we examined Campus Experiences.   Part Three outlines the importance of cultural supports on and around campus and how these elements support students with matriculation and graduation.

Cultural Understanding for School Counselors in Native American College Planning

Relationships are Key

In a recent CNN article, it was highlighted that for Native American college students, establishing connections with Native American culture on campus can significantly impact their experience. The importance of cultural support on campus is vital for these students. Attending college frequently involves students leaving their families and communities to adapt to new environments. This transition can be particularly challenging for Native American students, as they are distanced from their usual cultural support network.

Moving to a new environment ranks as one of the top stressors, as noted by Psychology Today. College students frequently leave their families to a setting where they are primarily self-reliant, shifting from dependency or interdependency to independence.  Interdependency is the base of Native American culture, where the entire community plays a role in nurturing and raising infants and children. Teens acquire life skills and cultural knowledge from adults and Elders, while adults care for and support both younger and older generations. Elders impart wisdom and cultural teachings to everyone. Given the importance of these interdependent relationships, it is crucial for the college environment to reflect this structure in order to provide effective support for Native American students during their college journey.

Cultural supports on campus for Native youth

Cultural Considerations & Native American College Planning

Tribal Colleges or Native American-Serving Nontribal Institutions Program (NASNTI) as a Cultural Support for Native Students

Tribal Colleges or Native American-Serving Nontribal Institutions Program (NASNTI) are two types of colleges to promote with Native American students during the college investigation process.  Consider the differences between the two…

Tribal colleges and universities provide dynamic higher education opportunities, most on or near reservation lands. Known for their remarkable programs, culturally-relevant curricula, and familial student care – tribal colleges allow students to further their careers, attain an advanced degree, or better support their communities.

[NASNTI] Defined by the U.S. Department of Education as an institution with an enrollment of undergraduate students that is at least 10 percent Native American according to IPEDS.

Both types of institutions have a higher percentage of students who identify as Native American enrolled. Take, for instance, Haskell Indian Nations University, a Tribal college where every student on campus identifies as Native American, fosters a culturally holistic experience students.  This supports the school’s 45% graduation rate for Native students as compared to the national average of 23%.

Key takeaway: When providing Native American students college planning guidance, explore colleges with Tribal College or NASNTI designations as considerations.

Native American SPECIFIC Support Centers

To assist students, colleges offer a range of support services including tutoring, counseling, health resources, and more. Alongside general multicultural student support centers that offer guidance based on identity, some colleges provide specialized Native American student support centers. A dedicated Native American student support center enhances the college experience for Native American students.

Native American student support staff possess cultural knowledge and training to cater to Native American students at the college. They establish a welcoming atmosphere for Native American students and organizing activities like Fry Bread Fridays and beading circle groups. These staff members are seen as mentors and relatives by Native American college students, providing them with support and advice during their transition to college life. This fosters a close-knit community where students rely on both the staff and their peers for support at the college.

Key takeaway: When providing Native American students college planning guidance, ensure colleges of consideration have a Native American support center.

In-Residence Programs

Elders as cultural support

In-Residence college programs invite external teachers to campus for a predetermined time period. Students access these teachers to supplement their learning experience.

For Native American students, In-Residence programs bring cultural knowledge keepers and Elders to campus to support not only their college experience but also their cultural learning.  Through these experiences, students receive direct teachings, exchange culture knowledge, and continue to create positive interdependency relationships.

Names for these types of programs may differ from campus to campus.  Below are some examples:

  • Elder In-Residence/Visiting Elder Programs
  • Adopt an Elder Program
  • Culture Bearer In-Residence Programs
  • Auntie In-Residence Program
  • Artist In-Residence Programs
  • Circle of Grandmothers

Key takeaway: When providing Native American students college planning guidance, link students to colleges that provide intergenerational opportunities.

Cultural Support for Native Students: Living/Learning Communities

Living and learning communities are a designated housing opportunity on campus.  Some colleges have recognized the need for Native American students to have a living experience that matches their cultural needs.  For example, many Native American students smudge as a daily practice. To support this practice, colleges designate specific spaces to smudge, including designated housing.

Native American living and learning housing also create an environment for Native American students to be their authentic selves.  Students can practice their cultural customs, language, and practices with other Native American students and allies within a safe living space.

Key takeaway: When providing Native American students college planning guidance, consider living experiences that match Native American students with other Native American students and allies.

Bridge Programs

Families as cultural supports for college

Bridge programs support students college transition.  These programs begin in the summer prior to freshman year and guide students through moving to campus, registering for courses, and meeting both support staff and peers.

Many of our Native American students are first generation college students.  Transitioning to college can be an anxiety-provoking  experience.  To limit the anxiety, colleges create bridging program to ease students into the college environment and structure.  Native American specific bridge programs will infuse culture as a strategy to support in college transition.  Additionally, the experience will include a circle of culturally supportive adults and Elders to support the transition.  Lastly, some programs will also include the student’s families to ease the transition.

Key takeaway: When providing Native American students college planning guidance, research colleges that support student transition through culturally-specific bridging type programs.

Native American College Planning Insights

Moreover, providing Native American college planning requires very specific knowledge and resources.  Native youth need a support system that understand how culture is the primary consideration in college counseling.  Additionally, counselors must utilize cultural resources to aid in this process, as many college counseling resources are not designed for Native youth.

Cultural supports are key to Native American student success and retention on campus.  By providing elements like a designated Native American Student Support Coordinator, will ensure that Native American students have cultural support on campus throughout their college experience.  Other elements like Elder In Residence programs and Native American Living & Learning Communities create a culture of interdependence culture to enhance retention.


CollegeBound Journey supports school counselors and college counselors with identifying colleges that provide campus experiences for Native youth. Check out our College Search Feature page to learn about our unique college search.

Reach out to us for more information on how we can support your work with Native youth.


As an experienced, Licensed School Counselor and Educational Consultant, Kerrie has a passion for creating programming and resources for Native youth success.  She is especially interested in developing and sharing resources that support Native American students towards college matriculation.

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