Indigenous Students Identify Six Factors That Impact Degree Completion


Guillory, R.M., & Wolverton, M. (2008). It’s about family: Native American student persistence in higher education. The Journal of Higher Education, 79(1), 58-87

I went to school in Winslow, Arizona during elementary level and completed junior high and high school in what was then called South Central Los Angeles. My high school education was as substandard as it gets! So much so that I played catch up when I started at the University of Southern California straight out of high school. It wasn’t until my second semester junior year that I figured out how college worked, what resources were available to me, and what I needed to graduate. Much of this transition occurred because I became a student worker in the Liberal Arts and Sciences department and had complete access to academic advisors in my degree program. I also sought work with the local urban Indian social services center where I could work and interact with other Indigenous people and obtain much needed financial and social support. I concur with the Indigenous voices in Guillory and Wolverton’s (2008) research, there are persistence factors that are unique to Indigenous students that ultimately lead to degree completion.


This qualitative study used focus groups and interviews of 30 Native American university students and the collective institutional voices of state representatives, university presidents, and faculty at three institutions on the persistence factors and barriers to retention and degree attainment for Native American students. Both groups, students and institutional voices, were asked the same questions. The findings indicate contrary ideas between the two groups on persistence and barrier factors. Students identified family, giving back to tribal community and on-campus social support as their most important persistence factors. Institutional voices listed adequate financial support and academic programs as persistence factors for Indigenous students. Barriers were incongruent as well, clearly a disconnect between the groups which has negative impact on Indigenous student degree completion.

Theoretical Framework and Lens for Analysis

After discussing the theories other researchers have used to explain Indigenous learner college retention and degree attainment (Tinto’s Theory of Student Departure, Pascarella’s General Model for Assessing Change, Astin’s Theory of Involvement and the Model of Institutional Adaptation to Student Diversity), mostly, mainstream theories applied to Indigenous learners, the authors explain their rationale for using a qualitative multiple case study-like approach to center Indigenous learners’ voices. The author’s quote Tierney (1990) “what we need now are sensitive studies that move beyond statistical surveys…Rather than research about American Indians for policy makers… we need studies by and for Native Americans about their relationship to the world of higher education” (as stated in Guillory & Wolverton, 2008, p. 61).

The authors used focus group interviews that lasted 90 to 100 minutes to capture the student voices. Students were selected by referral from the university Native student centers. The students also completed questionnaires to obtain background information. The students represented 20 Indigenous nations and were mostly juniors, seniors and graduate students. They all hailed from tribal communities or border towns. Nine students identified as first generation, while 12 students had at least one parent who held an AA, bachelor’s or master’s level degree. From the focus group interviews, students were asked to name and explain the most important factors that had helped them persist in the university thus far as well as barriers that Indigenous students must overcome to be successful at the university. The institutional voices among three rural universities were asked the same questions.

The authors used a within-case and cross-case analysis to examine the similarities and differences among the three universities. The results were examined to determine processes and outcomes that were thematic among all three universities. The authors used the Family Education Model (FEM) as a framework to analyze the results. The FEM is a model developed for use among Indigenous social work students that promotes action and intervention to improve Indigenous learner retention and degree attainment.

Strengths and critiques

This study has implications for all colleges and universities that educate Indigenous learners. These findings reinforce what Roppolo and Crow caution us against, using essentialist notions to create Indian education as opposed to assessing Indigenous learners to better meet their educational needs, as evidenced by the incongruences between students and institutional administration and staff. The article is a major contribution to the field of Indigenous student persistence in higher education as it centers the Indigenous student voice in higher education and offers solutions to improve retention and persistence. The qualitative approach allows a richness that cannot be seen from raw data like graduation and stop out rates. The authors suggest conducting more studies with Indigenous students at different colleges and universities, as there is little research that centers the voices of Indigenous university students especially among urban Indigenous students.

Related research and conversations

The findings in this research are consistent with the case study in the Campbell (2007) article I posted last week where a partnership between Pima Community College and the Tohono O’odham Nation addressed the need for students to maintain family and community ties, receive extra tutoring to meet college level work demands and complete financial student and family support.

As an educator at a community college an assessment of Indigenous learners’ needs seems like the first step in my practice. Researchers suggest using the student voices to plan interventions that honor the importance of family and community along with financial support to make institutional changes. Though my college is considered to be located in an urban environment, the Indigenous communities surrounding us have been impacted by the close proximity to the city. I am interested to learn if urban Indigenous students yield the same concerns as students in the rural universities.


Campbell, A. (2007). Retaining American Indian/Alaska Native students in higher education: A case study of one partnership between the Tohono O’odham Nation and Pima Community College, Tucson, AZ. Journal of American Indian Education, 46(2), 19-42.

Guillory, R.M., & Wolverton, M. (2008). It’s about family: Native American student persistence in higher education. The Journal of Higher Education, 79(1), 58-87.

Tierney, W. G. (1990, May). American Indians and higher education: A research agenda for the 90s. Paper presented at the Opening of the Montana Pipeline: American Indian HIgher Education in the Nineties Conference, Montana State University, Bozeman, MT.

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