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Tribal College and University Funding

December 30, 1899

​The development of TCUs was a collaborative effort within and across tribal nations and allies with the overall goal of “protecting and enhancing their own [tribal] cultures and at the same time embracing many of the tools of standard postsecondary education.”

(Stein 2009, 18)


Report Summary

Tribal College and University Funding: Tribal Sovereignty at the Intersection of Federal, State, and Local Funding
by Christine A. Nelson and Joanna R. Frye

As a general consensus, postsecondary credentials are key to ensuring that the United States produces economically competitive and contributing members to society. It should also be stated that postsecondary opportunities stretch beyond traditionally recognized needs; they also contribute to the capacity building of sovereign tribal nations. The Native population has increased 39 percent from 2000 to 2010, but Native student enrollment remains static, representing just 1 percent of total  postsecondary enrollment (Stetser and Stillwell 2014; Norris, Vines, and Hoeffel 2012). Despite the need and growing population, American Indians and Alaska Natives do not access higher education at the same rate as their non-Native peers.

Tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) continue to provide a transformative postsecondary experience and education for the Indigenous population and non-Native students from in and around Native communities. The 37 TCUs enroll nearly 28,000 full- and part-time students annually. TCUs, which primarily serve rural communities without access to mainstream postsecondary institutions, have experienced enrollment growth over the last decade, increasing nearly 9 percent between academic year (AY) 2002–03 and 2012–13.

This issue brief first contextualizes the important progress TCUs have made in Indian Country, then describes important inequities in federal, state, and local funding that limit these institutions’ ability to further their impact on the tribal communities they are chartered to serve. In this analysis, we identify five notable points:

  • TCUs are perpetually underfunded through the federal Tribally Controlled Colleges and Universities Assistance Act of 1978 (TCCUAA).
  • The formula for federal funds only allocates money for Native students. TCUs receive zero federal funding for non-Native students.
  • Unlike other public minority-serving institutions, state and local governments have no obligation to appropriate funding to TCUs.
  • TCUs are limited in their ability to increase tuition to fill revenue gaps, unlike other mainstream public institutions.
  • The chronic underfunding of TCUs may jeopardize the educational attainment of Indigenous students, exacerbating attainment gaps that exist between Native and non-Native populations.

Following the colonization of the Americas, formalized education for North American Indigenous1 students was rooted firmly in tactics of assimilation and eradication of tribal identity and language (Reyhner and Eder 2004; Szasz 2003). Recognizing the historical social barriers faced by Native students and the failure of mainstream colleges and universities to adequately serve them, tribal leaders began a movement toward tribally self-determined postsecondary education (McSwain and Cunningham 2006).

The demand for postsecondary education at TCUs continues to grow—enrollment increased 9 percent between AY 2002–03 and AY 2012–13.3 In addition to serving as a hub for higher education learning, approximately 100,000 community members participated in community education programs at TCUs.4 Among many other types of programs, such events include health and wellness, financial literacy, and cultural preservation programs.

This responsiveness to the higher education needs of communities across Indian Country, many of which are currently underserved by mainstream colleges and universities, continues to be the strength of TCUs. However, this also leads to diverse institutional conditions across TCUs, and challenges the notion that TCUs are a monolithic group. TCUs, in comparison to most mainstream postsecondary institutions, are still in their infancy and are developing their institutional capacity despite facing unstable and inadequate public funding. The importance of TCUs in meeting national goals of improving postsecondary access and attainment necessitates further investigation into how funding inequities are hindering the progress of these institutions.


The composition of revenue sources differs considerably between TCUs and other public institutions, as highlighted in Figure 1.5 Public sources (federal, state, and local appropriations, grants, and contracts) accounted for the largest share of revenues across all public institution types, on average, in AY 2013–14.6 However, TCUs received a significantly higher proportion of their total revenue from federal sources, averaging between 71 and 74 percent at two- and four-year TCUs, respectively. Compared to public non-TCUs, which receive less than 25 percent of their revenue from federal sources on average, two- and four-year TCUs are highly dependent upon federal funding.

Figure 1. Average Revenue Snapshot at TCUs and Public Non-TCUs, AY 2013–14

While many public higher education institutions have resorted to increasing tuition to offset declines in government funding over the last two decades, TCUs are constrained in their ability to raise tuition in at least two ways:

  • The majority of students served by TCUs face significant economic barriers such as extremely high rates of poverty and unemployment. The average annual income of students attending TCUs in AY 2009–10 was below $18,000, and at least 75 percent of students attending TCUs are Pell Grant recipients (AIHEC 2012).
  • Because federal student loans are not practical for most TCU students, given the aforementioned high rates of poverty and unemployment, few of the TCUs participate in the federal student loan program, and all are committed to keeping tuition low to preserve access for the students in their tribal communities (AIHEC 2012).

Revenue from private and other sources represented a small share of total institutional revenue at both TCUs and other public institutions in AY 2013–14. Like many public higher education institutions, TCUs do not derive a substantial amount of their revenue from private gifts or endowments.

State and Local Funding

As described previously, state governments have no obligation to appropriate funding to TCUs. Although it is rare, some states do allocate funding to TCUs to help support the costs of enrolling both Native and non-Native students. Two states (North Dakota and Montana) currently provide financial support to TCUs in the form of an allocation per non-Native student, which partially subsidizes the costs of educating these students. Arizona provides a yearly sum to TCUs to be used toward capital expenses and maintenance (funded through a portion of tax revenues collected on reservation lands). However, the majority of states do not provide any financial support to TCUs, even as these institutions enroll significant numbers of non-Native state residents.8

Federal Funding

Federal funding, the largest and most important source of funding for TCUs, is allocated through a complex series of titles within the Tribally Controlled College or University Assistance Act of 1978 (TCCUAA).9 The political and tribal circumstances surrounding the creation of each TCU determine how the institution is authorized and the type of federal funding to which it is entitled. Thirty of the 37 TCUs are funded through the four federal funding streams authorized by the TCCUAA to support operational expenses for TCUs (AIHEC and the Institute for Higher Education Policy 1999).10 These funding streams are managed and distributed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA):11

Figure 2. Federal Appropriations per Indian Student Count at TCUs, FY 1999–2015

In addition to not being appropriated funds to full authorization levels, TCUs that receive ISC funds do not receive any federal allocation to support the costs of educating non-Native students. On average, 16 percent of the student population at TCUs is non-Native14 (Figure 3). The lack of federal support for non-Native students has important financial implications for TCUs and continues to strain TCUs’ operating budgets, which are already struggling with federal underfunding. Beyond funding allocation, ISC further complicates an accurate calculation of the percentage of Native students served by TCUs. At TCUs, Native student enrollment follows ISC guidelines, and to be counted as Native a student must be an enrolled member of a federally recognized tribe or the biological child of an enrolled member of a federally recognized tribe, whereas at non-TCUs students self-identify as Native and are not required to provide specific tribal affiliation.

Figure 3. Percent of Non-Native Total Student Enrollment at TCUs, AY 2013–14

Funding disparities are not a new phenomenon for TCUs. For over 25 years, TCU advocates have urged Congress to increase authorization and allocation of funds (Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching 1989; Houser 1991). It is important to note the establishment of TCUs and the funding gap between authorization and allocation speaks to a larger relationship between tribal nations and the federal government.


TCUs provide many Native and non-Native students with access to a postsecondary education, making them an invaluable resource for Indian Country and the United States. By improving postsecondary access and attainment, particularly among populations who have been traditionally underserved in higher education, TCUs contribute directly to tribal and national goals of improving educational equity and economic capacity. As the Native population continues to grow, so will the need for TCUs to provide access to quality postsecondary training and credentials.

The full version of this policy brief is available here. (PDF) 1 MB




1 American Indians and Alaska Natives will be interchangeably referred to as Native or Indigenous throughout this brief.
2 Derived from the IPEDS 12-month unduplicated headcount at TCUs (AY 2012–13). This figure does not include Comanche Nation, Muscogee Nation, and Wind River.
3 Derived from the IPEDS 12-month unduplicated headcount (AY 2002–03 and AY 2012–13) for all students attending TCUs. Does not include Comanche Nation, Muscogee Nation, and Wind River.
4 Figure derived from the 2013–14 AIHEC American Indian Measures of Success (AIMS) Key Indicator System (AKIS).
5 One of the barriers to fully describing the public funding inequities faced by TCUs is incomplete data reporting over time. Federal reporting requirements are time-consuming and require significant staff effort, which is difficult for institutions such as TCUs where staff and faculty are already taking on multiple roles in daily institutional operations (AIHEC 2012). Persistent funding inequities harm the capacity of TCUs to create data systems needed to inform institutional effectiveness and improvement. In the absence of consistent longitudinal data, we focus our analysis on a snapshot of the current financial characteristics of TCUs. See Figure 3 for the list of TCUs included in the data analysis.
6 Total revenue excludes hospital and auxiliary revenues, as these operations are generally self-supporting.
7 Authors’ calculations using data from the National Center for Education Statistics Digest of Education Statistics, 2013.
8 Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College (MN) (FDLTCC), as a dual status tribal college and community college, is eligible for state funding sources inaccessible by other TCUs.
9 TCUs receive a limited amount of additional federal funding due to their status as land-grant institutions (determined by the Equity in Educational Land-Grant Status Act of 1994).
10 Several TCUs—Haskell Indian Nations University (KS), Southwest Indian Polytechnic Institute (NM), and the Institute of American Indian Arts (NM)—are funded and operated directly by the BIA.
11 Due to the BIA and TCU relationship, TCUs are required to submit operational expenses to IPEDS and the BIA, through BIA Form 6259:
12 Title II is allocated to only Diné College.
13 For further explanation see U.S. Code Title 25, Chapter 20, Section 1801.
14 FDLTCC was excluded from Figure 3 due to its dual status as a community college. Haskell Indian Nations University and Southwest Indian Polytechnic Institute are also excluded from Figure 3 because they are federally chartered institutions open to Native students only.

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Tribal College and University Funding: Tribal Sovereignty at the Intersection of Federal, State, and Local Funding


This is the second issue brief in a series related to Minority-serving institutions (MSIs).


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