Recruitment of Native Students—A Counselor's Perspective

Whitney Laughlin, Ed.D.
Former College and Career Counselor,
Native American Preparatory School, Rowe, New Mexico

In this article I will discuss, from a counselor's perspective, how colleges may better recruit and retain Native high school students. Although one never wants to generalize about any population, these suggestions come from a variety of sources, including my own personal experience and ideas gleaned from Native college personnel. "Recruitment and Retention of Native Students" is the topic of a presentation I will be part of at the 1997 National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) Conference this fall in San Francisco. Retention is also the major focus of the next RETAIN (Retention in Education for Today's American Indian Nations) conference at Northern Arizona University in April of 1998.

I have worked with Native students (among others) for the past twenty years as teacher, admission officer, and college counselor in public and private schools and colleges. In my graduate work I focused on issues of access to higher education for lower income students, with an emphasis on those from rural backgrounds. I currently work with Native students, exclusively, in a school whose curriculum is strictly college preparatory. NAPS' mission is to prepare students for higher education while celebrating their diverse Native backgrounds and cultures, an ambitious goal to be sure.

The style of recruitment for Native students is very important if colleges want to be successful. Too often I hear reps say, "They seemed so interested and then we never heard anything." College reps need to be proactive and aggressive (in a positive way). The vast majority of the students they are dealing with will be first-generation college students and usually do not have parents who are familiar with either the college application or selection process. Often these students' counselors - who become an even more important resource for first-generation, low-income students - also lack information about post-secondary opportunities as well. Admission reps cannot make any assumptions, therefore, about what students know. Their role then becomes that of an educator, counselor and cheerleader, informing students, their families and their counselors not only about their college, but also about post-secondary education in general.

Building relationships with feeder schools, counselors (both school and tribal), families and tribal leaders is crucial. The "hit and run" visit style so prevalent (and often effective) with private schools and more affluent suburban high schools, will not work when recruiting Native students. They have not heard about most colleges, particularly those out of state, and it may take two or three years of visiting a school before one gets an application. And don't just visit the high school; get to know the tribal education people and they can help you host a gathering at their offices, particularly if your talk will offer valuable information on various topics - financial aid, etc. - as well as on your individual school. Often it is the tribal education people who really know the student and family - far better than the school counselor.

If a student from that community attends your school and is happy, word travels fast and there will be future applicants. If that student drops out, the likelihood of another student applying from that community is slim - the "moccasin grapevine" works exceedingly well in Indian Country. This phenomenon points to the importance of working particularly hard to retain a Native student who is the first from a school or community to attend a college. Recruitment of Native students must be tied to retention and building relationships. Working with tribal people initially will help a great deal if that student has difficulties in college later on. They can be a great source of information and support. Building relationships with area schools and tribes early on in a student's schooling is crucial. Too many colleges are working hard on recruiting minority students from throughout the country, while ignoring the Native communities in their own backyards. Begin partnerships with local grammar and middle schools as well as high schools. Get these younger students on your campus; sponsor summer programs and bridge programs. Sponsor programs for area counselors and tribal education people to educate them not only about your institution but about post-secondary education and the college selection process in general. Invite them to take part in the admission process by reading and evaluating files (of Native students, if possible) for a day and holding a mock admission committee. Not only will the counselors learn a great deal about the admission process, but the college reps will also gain invaluable insights from the counselors about Native students.

Studies show that potential first-generation college students (most Native students) make decisions about attending college before they even get to high school. Too many Native students -- if they get through high school at all -- get shuffled into vocational or non-college prep tracks in high school. By the time a college rep would even have the potential to speak with them, their course selection alone would make them ineligible to attend most four-year institutions. Native American students are three times as likely to attend two-year colleges than their white counterparts. They need to know what their options are and not just make a choice by default. Most tribal colleges - which have been very successful at retaining Native students - are two-year, yet too many Native students don't even know about these options. As well as course and college selection, the importance of information on financial aid cannot be overemphasized. In my experience - and studies also bear this out - the first reason the majority of low-income students give for not attending college is the cost.

I do presentations to students using examples of actual award letters of former students (get their permission and white out the names) who had applied to a variety of colleges. I go over the various components and explain what they mean. They are always impressed by the difference between the "sticker price" and the amount that the student and family had to contribute. We discuss loans and repayment; when I tell them that a college graduate, on average, will make overall more than twice the income of a high school graduate, the relatively cheap cost (usually less than a monthly car payment) of loans becomes apparent. "They can repossess your car and your house, but they can never take away your education. It's the best investment you can make," is the message students and their families need to hear.

One major piece that colleges need to pay attention to in recruiting Native students is the appropriate place for test scores as an admission criteria. As a student of Howard Gardner and strong advocate of his "Theory of Multiple Intelligences," I have learned that Native students have much to offer that is not reflected in standardized test scores. Larry Sedlacek's research and numerous articles on "Noncognitive Indicators of Success" should also be bedside reading for every admission officer who is recruiting Native students. Sedlacek has developed a well-documented list of skills and competencies (which do not include standardized test scores) that are most demonstrated by those low-income students who are successful in college. Other studies tell us that Native students who develop mainstream social competencies (the social capital of the dominant class) while simultaneously developing Native social competencies, are most likely to be successful in college and, most important, to be retained. This is our goal at the Native American Preparatory School, and mainstream colleges who have adopted this as their mission for their Native students have as a whole - not surprisingly - the highest overall retention rates for Native students. In fact, in several instances, the retention rate for their Native students is higher than that for their the remainder of their student body.

(A revised edition of this article was published in the Journal of College Admission, Spring 2001, Issue #171, pages 3 &4.)

Whitney Laughlin, Ed.D.
Santa Fe, NM (505) 690-9054
Victoria, BC (250) 478-7762

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