The Christian Science Monitor : 2020-12-07

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HUMANITY BEHIND THE HEADLINES As Native freshman enrollment falls sharply, tribal colleges respond By Kelly Field / Correspond­ent E bony Oviok, an Alaska Native from the state’s North Slope, thought she’d be spending this fall at the University of Alaska Fairbanks studying for her nursing certificat­e. Instead, like thousands of would-be college freshmen, she’s home, waiting out the pandemic. Nationwide, there are 13% fewer freshmen enrolled in college this fall than last, according to the latest data from the National Student Clearingho­use. The steepest declines have occurred at community colleges among students of color. At public, four-year colleges, freshman enrollment among Native American students is down 22%; at community colleges, it’s fallen by almost 30%. Some of these students have lost jobs, or have family members who have, and can no longer afford college. Others are uncom- WHY WE WROTE THIS Among students of color in particular, freshman enrollment in colleges is down significan­tly due to the pandemic. But schools serving the Native American community are working hard to get students back on track. COURTESY KATE OVIOK campuses are safe. Some are offering discounted or free tuition and other incentives. In Point Hope, Alaska, high school counselor Cathy Williams is urging Ms. Oviok and others who sat out the fall semester to enroll at the tribal college, Iḷisaġvik College, this spring. “I’m trying to build a bridge to the community college,” she says. “Even a certificat­e will help you get employment.” Without high-speed internet, students couldn’t participat­e in the virtual tours and chats that replaced in-person visits to college campuses last spring. They also couldn’t commit to online classes if their college opted for remote- only instructio­n. It’s not just Point Hope that is seeing the effects of the digital divide on students’ college plans. Nationwide, more than a quarter of Native American students attending a tribal college lack reliable internet access at home, according to a survey by the American Indian College Fund. For many of them, access is not just a matter of cost, but availabili­ty. In vast swaths of rural America, “there are literally no lines,” says Carmen Lopez, executive director of College Horizons, a New Mexico nonprofit that helps Native students enroll and succeed in college. At the Institute of American Indian Arts, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, freshman enrollment fell by a third this fall, a drop that admissions director Mary Silentwalk­er attributed to the school’s decision to offer most courses online. fortable with online education or lack the technology to access it. And some, like Ms. Oviok, are scared of bringing back the virus to vulnerable family members. “I was worried that some places might not be hygienic,” says Ms. Oviok, whose mother, brother, and boyfriend all have been diagnosed with asthma. “I thought about me coming home and infecting them.” This fall’s drop in freshman enrollment is likely to have long-term consequenc­es for students, colleges, and the economy at large. Students who postpone enrollment are far less likely to graduate from college than those who enroll immediatel­y after high school. And without a degree, they’re more likely to get stuck in low- and middle-wage jobs. So colleges and access groups are scrambling to get students back on track. They’re reaching out to applicants asking why they didn’t enroll and reassuring parents that A digital divide Point Hope is located near the tip of a triangular spit of land that juts out into the Chukchi Sea. It is reachable only by sea or air. The local economy revolves around subsistenc­e hunting, fishing, and whaling. The isolation and self-reliance of Point Hope have insulated its 700-some residents from the health and economic impacts of the pandemic. But the town’s remoteness has also made the pivot to online courses and services difficult for its aspiring college students. Though high-speed internet is available in Point Hope, it’s expensive, and most families can’t afford it, Ms. Williams says. 8 THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR WEEKLY | DECEMBER 7, 2020 PRINTED AND DISTRIBUTE­D BY PRESSREADE­R PressReade­ +1 604 278 4604 ORIGINAL COPY . ORIGINAL COPY . ORIGINAL COPY . ORIGINAL COPY . ORIGINAL COPY . ORIGINAL COPY COPYRIGHT AND PROTECTED BY APPLICABLE LAW