The Impact of Tribal Colleges in the Economic Development of Tribal Communities: A Case Study

Anne Grob

Tribal Colleges, although they often remain unknown to the general public and education scholars alike, constitute an important part of higher education in the United States.1 It is the purpose of my dissertation project to change this lack of awareness and interest, and to draw a detailed picture of contemporary Native American higher education efforts. Founded in the 1970s to address educational and cultural needs of Native Americans, these colleges have established themselves as a viable education model for many Native American students in the United States. In addition to the impact Tribally Controlled Community Colleges have on the education of individual students, it is the aim of my study to show in-depth that these colleges are an integral part of the tribal community, and make crucial contributions to the social, cultural, economic, and political development of their respective tribal groups. Designed as a case study, and drawing upon existing secondary literature and original empirical data gathered during fieldwork from July to September 2007,2 this project takes a closer look at one specific Tribal College in northwestern Montana - Salish Kootenai College - and its role in individual student and community empowerment.

As already briefly mentioned, these institutions of higher learning also play a central role in tribal economic growth and development.3 Jack Barden, in his discussion of tribal education, points out that Tribally Controlled Colleges are “working with their local tribal communities to create economic development programs that are designed in-house [by community members] to meet cultural principles and local needs, and to ensure long-lasting sustainability” (103). In this essay, I will demonstrate how one specific Tribal College, Salish Kootenai College (SKC), makes crucial contributions to the economic development of a tribal community and thus significantly assists the tribes it serves in overcoming obstacles to economic success that have impaired Native communities for decades. In particular, I will argue that Salish Kootenai College promotes economic viability by creating jobs and stimulates the tribal economy on a long-term basis through its provision of workforce development, small business advancement, and the further development of agricultural and environmental research. As a result, Tribal Colleges such as SKC strengthen the tribal community and facilitate positive change in many areas of reservation life.

Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) are postsecondary educational institutions founded and governed by Native Americans, for Native Americans. With a growing Native American youth population and an increased awareness of the importance of higher education for tribal culture and reservations, tribal leaders started Indian Colleges in the 1970s. After many decades of unsuccessful and ineffective non-Indian instruction efforts, these alternative higher education institutions became “increasingly essential to educational opportunity for American Indian students” (AIHEC “Tribal Colleges” A-1). Although Indian Community Colleges are as unique in size, facilities, and degree programs as the tribes they serve, there are several aspects these institutions share. The majority of TCUs serve geographically isolated Native American populations on or near reservations (Morris and O’Donnell 18). Accredited by regional accreditation agencies, they offer certificate and associate degrees, while some have also begun to offer Bachelor and Master’s degrees (His Horse is Thunder 3).

Salish Kootenai College (SKC) is a Tribal College located on the Flathead Indian Reservation in the northwestern part of Montana. It was chartered in 1977 by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council and is controlled by a board of directors that consists of enrolled Salish and Kootenai tribal members (O’Donnell ii; 1-26). Prior to the establishment of Salish Kootenai College, the higher education situation for Native people on this reservation was bleak. In 1972, only 2.6% of all enrolled students at Montana universities were Native Americans and therefore Native people were greatly underrepresented at all degree levels (O’Donnell 8). As a response to decades of unsuccessful education, SKC was created to respond to Salish and Kootenai higher education needs and aimed at improving American Indian education on the reservation (O’Donnell ii; 1-26). Today, the college provides postsecondary education to Native Americans from both the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, as well as to tribes from throughout the nation. Accredited by the Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges, Salish Kootenai College offers Certificates, as well as Associate and Bachelor degrees to its students (Robbins 57). 

Regarding the economic development efforts of SKC, assisting the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in improving the economic situation on the reservation is an integral aspect and goal of the college. When asked about the role of the college in economic development for the tribes, SKC president Joseph McDonald replied that the college tries “to provide ideas” on how to strengthen and develop the tribal economy. Tribal Colleges like SKC significantly contribute to building a stronger economic base and to supporting economic development programs for their respective tribes and reservations (Boyer 44-46). In the following, I will outline some of the major obstacles for tribal communities in enhancing economic opportunities, as well as discuss the most important direct and long-term contributions of Salish Kootenai College in offering economic assistance to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

Tribal communities and Tribal Colleges work hard towards achieving economic viability. According to a study by the Institute for Higher Education Policy, Native Americans, particularly those living on reservations, are confronted with economic hardships that manifest themselves in high unemployment and poverty rates (“The Path” 28). The state of Montana is ranked 48th in terms of unemployment in the United States. Whereas the unemployment rate in some Montana counties is 5-10%, on reservations in Montana it can be up to 77%. On the Flathead Reservation the unemployment rate is approximately 41% (SKC webpage). Thus, the unemployment rate on the Flathead Reservation, while lower than on many other reservations in the state, is still high compared to areas outside the reservation. Besides unemployment, a high poverty rate creates destitute living conditions for many Native Americans in the United States. Contributing factors to this cycle of poverty are manifold and include a stagnant economic situation (Raymond 1-2).

The difficult legal situation on reservations, and related sovereignty issues further complicate the attraction of businesses, resulting in low levels of investment and an outward flow of money. In particular, the fact that reservation land is held in trust by the federal government and therefore cannot be employed as collateral for loans, as well as the fact that no property taxes can be levied for such land complicate the economic situation on reservations. Furthermore, the sovereign immunity status for tribal governments and the fragmented landownership on reservations, as a result of the Dawes Act, are serious obstacles in attracting outside business (Wilkins and Lomawaima 225, 261-246). Other hindrances in enhancing economic opportunity on many reservations are low participation rates in the labor force and limited opportunities for upward mobility, which among other reasons result from a long history of miseducation that has lead to low education levels, as well as to a lack of skilled workers and personnel with management skills who are both urgently needed in today’s labor force. Geographic isolation and limited access to labor and consumer markets as well as a lack of adequate physical infrastructure and capital are further problems for many tribal groups (“The Path” 2-31).4 Finally, low economic sector diversity, inconsistent tribal business regulations, and a history of economic exploitation by as well as financial dependence on the federal government create serious barriers for improving reservation economies (“The Path” 15).5

Salish Kootenai College directly supports and stimulates the tribal economy in creating jobs and thereby spending money for faculty and staff. In addition to teaching positions, a variety of other positions, such as administration or staff appointments, need to be filled by the college. The annual payroll of SKC exceeds $5.8 million, which is then mainly spent in the local community.6 According to a report by the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, the college also brings money into the economy by purchasing goods and services from the local economy. Not only is the institution spending money, but employees, students and visitors are as well (“Tribal College” 9-14). It is noted that “when employees, visitors, and students are from outside the local community or when purchases are financed with external financial aid, such spending represents new expenditures” (“Tribal College” 13). Another important benefit for the local community and positive influence of the college (A 4, Kinkade) is noted in a 2007 study by the Institute for Higher Education Policy which lists an annual economic turnover rate of $7 to $14 million at Salish Kootenai College (“The Path” 29). This means that before a dollar leaves the local economy, it turns over four to seven times, resulting in economic turnover benefits for the Flathead area community. Consequently, money that is earned and spent in the community represents an important input to the tribal/local economy (Whitaker; Lenau; Stein). This has positive ramifications not only for the tribal/local economy, but for regional, state, and national economies as well. Besides creating direct benefits for the tribal and local economy, SKC also positively influences the regional and state economies through salaries, wages and turnover dollars. Indian reservation residents, reservation businesses and tribal governments, for instance, spend money for services and goods not locally available (AIHEC “Tribal Colleges” A-2). This is especially viable on the regional level, since according to Bordeaux and Houser, tribal and regional economies influence each other (50). Thus, a positive development of the reservation economy also positively influences the regional economy (“Tribal College” 5).7

The long-term impacts of Salish Kootenai College on the tribal economy range from workforce training and development to small business advancement to the further development of agricultural and environmental research and practices. Workforce training and development is a goal of many Tribal Colleges, including SKC. According to the 2005 TCU Alumni Survey, 59% of TCU graduates felt that earning a degree from a Tribal College helped them obtain a first or new job, or helped them regain work. Furthermore, a total of 36% were able to receive a promotion or a raise at their current workplace. Therefore, a total of 95% of graduates see their Tribal College education as a good preparation for entering the job market (“Championing Success” 28).

The attentiveness of Tribal College Programs regarding tribal community needs allows for an extensive workforce training and development. An instructor at Salish Kootenai College points out that the college tries “to keep [a] finger on the pulse of what is important to the community and offer[s] programs accordingly” (Swaney). The college and its departments get input from the culture committees and the tribal community on how to improve the curriculum (A 9; A 4). That in turn helps the community, since graduates are better prepared for their jobs and can provide better services to the community. Responding to the major influence of the lumber and construction industries in western Montana, the first classes at SKC were offered in forestry. Certificates and degree programs in environmental science, highway construction, and building trades followed (“Tribal College” 15-16). Today, the college offers a wide variety of vocational and academic programs that respond to the ongoing and evolving needs of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes.

Pavel and Inglebret see crucial advantages in locally educating Native students at Tribal Colleges for tribal businesses. In their 2007 student guide, they state that among other things, “the TCU’s role allows tribal businesses and services to know the educational experiences of potential employees and can employ quality people who have community pride embedded in their ethics, along with a community-based concept of professionalism” (149). SKC president McDonald emphasizes that the “Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and other tribes in the northwest have benefited greatly form the work of employees that were schooled at Salish Kootenai College” (qtd. in Robbins 58). Not only do possible future employers know what kind of education students receive at the college, but through the close working relationships between the college and tribal departments, students also learn about tribal work procedures and are effectively prepared for their future employment on the reservation.

Although SKC graduates are not limited to a local scope and receive the necessary training and skills for work in jobs everywhere, many prefer to stay and work on or near the reservation (Mires, Shepard). The fact that many Tribal College graduates stay on the reservation after completing their programs is an indication of the success of colleges in matching local employment opportunities (Boyer 68). Several interviewees further stated that many SKC graduates work for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes or for tribal businesses on the reservation. A third option for graduates is the creation of new community businesses (Whitaker; Fisher; Marceau). Receiving the necessary skills to be successful in the local workforce constitutes one major reason why Tribal College graduates have high employment rates especially when considering the high unemployment rates on reservations in general and the occupational situation of Native Americans without a college degree (“The Path” 3). According to Morris and O’Donnell, “tribal colleges have contributed substantially to improve Indian employment figures” (22). In the years from 1992 to 1996, 86% of all Salish Kootenai College students found employment after graduation (“Tribal College” 18).

A second important aspect of workforce training and development is the fact that Tribal College students and employees already in the labor force are able to expand their knowledge and expertise at a TCU like Salish Kootenai College. This leads to increased employment levels, better employment and higher earnings for individuals and the tribal community as a whole.8 Further personal benefits include better working conditions, prestige and potential promotions. Another positive outcome of workforce training and development that also has beneficial ramifications for the national economy is the decline in public assistance reliance (“The Path” 25-34).

By increasing the skill levels of college graduates and workers, Tribal Colleges and SKC also fulfill another purpose. AIHEC argues that “the development of local human capital leads to increases in local productivity” (“Tribal College” 9), meaning that other businesses and industries are encouraged to settle and invest in the region, which again has positive economic consequences for the tribal and local economy. According to an interviewee, SKC brought businesses, tourism and outside resources to the reservation (A 9). The above-mentioned aspects not only have a positive impact on individuals, but on the community as well, since SKC graduates are employed in jobs that serve their local community.

Salish Kootenai College also supports long-term economic growth by fostering local entrepreneurship and by assisting in the development of small businesses. According to AIHEC, the development of small businesses constitutes “one of the greatest opportunities for economic growth” (“Tribal College” 19). The Rural Community College Initiative, a national program trying to improve the access to higher education in rural areas and dedicated to regional economic development, supports college and community members in their plans to provide local economic leadership. Salish Kootenai College is one of six tribal colleges that participate in this program, and small business development is a main target (“Tribal College” 6). SKC offers a business degree, supports students and entrepreneurs through the American Indian Business Leaders organization and assists students and tribal members with small business development through the Salish Kootenai College Tribal Business Assistance Center (“Tribal College” 9-19). The Business/Entrepreneurship degree at SKC provides the necessary skills to start a business and to create new employment opportunities, thereby building the local economy (Zimmer). Specifically geared towards tribal values and local businesses, “the Business Management Department works closely with the business community to coordinate the appropriate skills, knowledge, and experiences to prepare students to become effective entrepreneurs” (SKC Catalog 24). Native business students and entrepreneurs are also supported at SKC through the college’s involvement with the American Indian Business Leaders (AIBL). This organization, created in Missoula in 1994, promotes and supports the education of Native business students and entrepreneurs, as well as providing a forum for discussion. Through organizations and efforts like AIBL, Native American students gain the necessary skills for creating small businesses, while at the same time acquiring the requisite leadership abilities (“About AIBL”).

Besides a business/entrepreneur degree and support through the American Indian Business Leaders program, Salish Kootenai College also sponsors and directs a Tribal Business Assistance Center (TBAC) (“Tribal Colleges” B-3). It provides technical assistance, training and business start-up grants primarily for Native Americans who want to establish a small business. The future tribal entrepreneurs receive insight into all aspects of small businesses through consultations, workshops, meetings and special business administration courses. For instance, the TBAC helps with marketing and budgeting, offers assistance in creating business plans, and supports webpage design. People interested in opening a business can further benefit from collaborations the center has established with institutions such as the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribal government and local, state and federal agencies (SKC Self-Study II-118). According to Rivard, the Salish Kootenai College Tribal Business Assistance Center has helped Native American and non-Indian students and entrepreneurs in creating more than 200 businesses since it was established in 1994. The Center was also instrumental in the creation of the Flathead Nations Agriculture cooperative, that assists entrepreneurs from the Flathead Reservation in developing and marketing beef jerky (Rivard 1). This leads to the third way in which Salish Kootenai College influences long-term economic growth.

As a land grant institution, Salish Kootenai College influences the development of agricultural and environmental research and practices, and in so doing has a positive effect on the economic development of the reservation.9 Combined with on-campus education and research as well as off-campus extension work, land grant initiatives at the college create new business and job opportunities. Through these initiatives, sustainable agriculture and natural resource management research is conducted which positively affects agricultural and land development (“Tribal College” 10-23). SKC helps the tribal community to improve the local expertise in general, to increase tribal control over tribal resources in enhancing the skill level of workers and to educate students in resource management and agriculture. Degree programs such as Environmental Science and Forestry directly respond to the tribal community’s need for training in these areas (Leighton). The native plant nursery is an example of SKC’s extension efforts and serves as a teaching, research and production facility. Furthermore, special programs in value added agriculture and assistance in business planning with the tribes’ nursery are offered at Salish Kootenai College and directly influence tribal economic development (SKC Self-Study II-123-24). A second program started just recently at the college is the SKC Farm to College Program, which supports the regional economy by introducing locally produced foods at the college cafeteria (SKC Catalog 9-11).

As this article has demonstrated, Salish Kootenai College significantly contributes to the Salish and Kootenai tribes’ efforts in overcoming longstanding economic difficulties.10 The college helps to build a stronger economic base by creating jobs, and also brings money into the economy by purchasing goods and services from the local economy. The diverse long-term impacts of Salish Kootenai College on the tribal economy comprise workforce training and development, small business advancement, as well as the further development of agricultural and environmental research. By supporting various economic programs and in developing specifically designed programs, Salish Kootenai College strengthens the tribal communities’ economy, and the tribal community as such.


1 Tribal Colleges (TCs) are also known as Tribally Controlled Community Colleges (TCCC), Tribally Chartered Community Colleges, Indian Community Colleges or Indian Colleges

2 I utilized prevalent ethnographic field research methods, such as participant observation, open-ended interviews and quantitative methods in the form of statistics and studies. Qualitative forms of data collection, such as participant observation, informal discussions, and formal face-to-face semi-structured interviews constituted the main research method. A set of quantitative methods, including the use of existing statistics and demographic materials on SKC, was chosen as a supplemental form of data gathering to support the qualitative outcomes. I also analyzed institutional self-studies, reports, and college catalogs for both qualitative and quantitative data.

3 This chapter of my dissertation project is based on secondary literature such as published articles, books, and reports as well as on original empirical data.

4 Physical infrastructure, such as water access or transportation, is an important factor in developing and strengthening tribal economies.

5 Tribal economic difficulties are also discussed in AIHEC, “Tribal College” 6, and in a study by the Institute for Higher Education Policy, “Championing Success” 2. It is outside the scope of this article to explicitly discuss how these factors are interrelated. For more information on the cause-and-effect relations of these factors refer to the study of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, “The Path”.

6 Although American Indians constitute a significant proportion of administrators, staff and students at TCUs, the great majority of instructors at Tribal Colleges, 61%, are non-Natives with efforts underway to increase the number of Native faculty (Voorhees and Adams 20). Salaries are sometimes considerably lower than at other colleges and difficulty in finding adequate opportunities for spouses make it a challenge for some Tribal Colleges to find teaching personnel. Many instructors’ motives for teaching include a sense of commitment to the respective Indian communities, as well as the desire to make a positive difference in the lives of students (Voorhees 2-8; Oppelt 81). 

7 It should also be noted that with a positive development of the reservation economy, the dependency on federal support decreases.

8 Through advanced training at a Tribal College, students and employees already in the workforce can improve their employment opportunities not only within the tribal community but also outside of it. 

9 Tribal Colleges were awarded land grant status in 1994 through the Equity in Educational Land-Grant Status Act (AIHEC “Tribal College” 24).

10 Side effects of economic stabilization on a cultural, demographic or personal level were not addressed by interview participants and therefore cannot be determined at this point of my study. Nonetheless, they will be closely examined in the subsequent fieldwork this year.

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