Native American graduation rates up at Northern, campus earned $3.4M federal award

By: - May 25, 2022 6:53 pm

Graduation rates are up at MSU-Northern for American Indian students with the Little River Institute. (Provided by MSU-Northern)

Montana State University-Northern is pushing up Native American student retention and graduation rates, according to a report last week to the Board of Regents.

“Our work exemplifies the value of departments and divisions working together for a common shared goal, and that being American Indian student achievement,” said Margarett Campbell, director of American Indian Education, tribal liaison, and special advisor to the chancellor on the Havre campus.

In 2015, Northern was awarded a $1.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education through the Native American-Serving Nontribal Institutions, or NASNTI program, to support Native student retention and graduation. The programs support higher education institutions serving an undergraduate population that’s at least 10 percent Native American.

In 2020, Northern received another round of funding, nearly the maximum $1.5 million, for another five years, according to the presentation to the Regents. Northern is the only college in Montana with a NASNTI program, said Erica McKeon-Hanson, director for the Little River Institute, the program that supports Native students at Northern. She said Oklahoma counts 16 and Alaska counts six out of 37 total in the United States.

“I hope that we’re going to change that number,” said McKeon-Hanson, of the single NASNTI campus in Montana, noting she’s willing to help any institution seek an award. “I hope that we’re going to see that number be more than just one.”

Since the program started in Havre, Native American retention has gone up 20 percent, McKeon-Hanson said. She also said graduation within four years has jumped 5 points, from 9.1 percent to 14.3 percent; graduation within six years has jumped 8 points, from 12 percent to 20 percent.

The idea with NASNTI is that a campus offers holistic, culturally aware education to students, and McKeon-Hanson noted 15 percent of the student population at Northern is Native American, counting graduate students. The program offers professional tutoring, mentoring, professional development and family engagement.

“Everything that we do at the Little River Institute is to create a sense of belonging, and we do that through our campus home,” McKeon-Hanson said.

She shared the following data points as outcomes of the Little River Institute:

  • 79 percent of Native American students who received professional tutoring from 2020 to 2021 passed the courses for which they’d received the help, even in a high COVID-19 year;
  • 45 percent of Native American students participated in a mentoring program, and of those, 85 percent were retained; she lauded the support from the rest of the campus: “When we are helping students to find their way, often that means conversations with their academic advisors.”
  • 29 percent of Native American students had their families interact with the campus as part of an effort to include them, and of those students, 94 percent were retained: “It really speaks to the high importance of family.”

Professional development also is important, and McKeon-Hanson said Northern prides itself on helping the campus grow to be more and more culturally responsive in areas such as guest speakers and collaborative projects across departments. The new grant in particular is focused on STEM fields — Science, Technology, Engineering and Math — and she said research itself is a retention tool.

“When American Indian students can participate in research with faculty, they are very engaged, and they are committed to that project,” McKeon-Hanson said.

She said the program supports not only Native American students but other minorities, and faculty and other staff across campus, such as health counselors, also help with the initiative. Since the program is more than six years old, she said it’s paying off in other ways, such as a former peer mentor who is now a teacher in Box Elder is referring students to Northern.

“This is such a benefit so many times over,” McKeon-Hanson said.

Regent Todd Buchanan said similar to Montana 10, an achievement program for lower income students, the strategies of the Little River Institute include multiple connection points between students and campus. He praised the leadership and dedication of McKeon-Hanson and Campbell.

“It’s obvious your heart is where your work is,” said Buchanan, who noted the work was supported with data.

Chairman Casey Lozar agreed and said the program has a clear track record, and the Little River Institute has embedded culture and family values into education on campus. He said he wanted to know how to institutionalize the work.

“This is success, folks,” Lozar said. “We need to continue to find ways to support this with resources and staff outside the NASNTI gift.”

Regent Loren Bough asked the program leaders if they could ask for one thing, what the priority would be. Campbell said continued support for the American Indian/Minority Achievement program of the Montana University System, and McKeon-Hanson said a focus on mental health, which Campbell seconded.

“We have witnessed probably more mental health issues in the last couple of years than I have during my entire higher ed career,” Campbell said.

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. In Montana since 1998, she loves hiking in Glacier National Park, wandering the grounds of the Archie Bray and sitting on her front porch with friends. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana. She worked there from 2006 to 2020. As a Missoulian reporter, she was named a co-fellow by the Education Writers Association to report on a series about economic mobility; grantee of the Society of Environmental Journalists for a project on conservation from the U.S. to Africa; and Kiplinger Fellow in Digital Media and Public Affairs Journalism. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune and Missoula Independent, and she earned her master’s in journalism from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula with her husband, Brock, who is also her favorite chef, and her pup, Henry, who is her favorite adventure companion. She believes she deserves to wear the T-shirt with this saying: “World’s most mediocre runner.”