Tribal Insights Brief: Higher Education & Workforce Development: Leveraging Tribal Investments to Advance Community Goals

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The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) Policy Research Center’s 2010 Tribal Research Priorities Survey reported that education and economic development are top research priorities for tribes. Respondents noted their interest in research and resources regarding how to: (1) create jobs and training opportunities for tribal citizens and (2) motivate youth to pursue higher education and contribute their knowledge and skills to the community.

Research continually demonstrates the link between higher education and individual economic benefits. The most commonly measured economic benefit of higher education for individuals is the ability to find better paid employment—a tendency that holds true for American Indians and Alaska Natives, as well as for the general population. According to the US Census Bureau, a worker who has a bachelor’s degree or higher earns almost four times as much as someone who did not graduate from high school, and more than twice as much as a person who has only a high school diploma.i Increasingly, higher education does not simply open the door to greater earning potential, but also determines whether someone can even get a job. This is especially the case in today’s economy where many entry-level jobs require specialized training and/or a college degree. Consider that the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce predicts that by 2018, 63 percent of US jobs will require some form of postsecondary education.ii Occupations that require higher-level skills are growing, and the numbers of low-skill jobs are shrinking—leaving unskilled workers to compete for fewer jobs.

As a result many of the efforts to increase American Indian and Alaska Native higher education and training emphasize the role of the federal government in providing financial aid and the ways largely non-tribal postsecondary institutions can create more welcoming environments for individual Native students.iii However, by exploring national data trends on American Indian and Alaska Native demography and higher education and six cases, this brief suggests that tribal investments in postsecondary education and training can both benefit the individuals who complete their education and can strengthen the capacity of Native nations to serve as governments and as cultural communities.