Holding Higher Education Institutions to Their Promises

Early European colonists funneled indigenous children into boarding schools under a mask of religious charity. In the United States, education was a means of colonization and eradicating Native culture. The trauma of colonization led to Native peoples’ distrust for non-Native educational institutions and government agencies. What remains is intergenerational trauma and a gaping hole in opportunities for Native youth.

Across the nation, colleges and universities have few Native students. There is minimal funding and programming that encourages Native youth to pursue higher education. Worse, the few programs that do are generating false hope.

“Because of the history of American Indians and education, there is a lack of Native Americans at higher institutions," Assistant Director of the Pitzer College Native American Initiatives Scott Scoggins told me. "Pitzer and the Claremont Colleges aren’t the only ones that have less than 1 percent.”

Pitzer’s Native Youth to College Program is a college preparatory initiative that motivates and supports youth through the college application process. The initiative’s Board of Directors is comprised of tribal leaders, faculty from the Claremont Colleges, and representatives from high schools such as Noli Indian High School and Sherman Indian High School. Native Youth to College is inclusive of Native cultural practices and traditions. The program, however, does not guarantee acceptance into Pitzer College or other ‘selective’ higher education institutions.

Selectivity is defined by the quantity of students an institution rejects, as explained by Laura Colarusso. By boosting the number of applicants, institutions of higher education increase the pool of rejected students.

Selectivity feeds the commercialization of education, a process in which individuals invest in education for profit and treat students as consumers. According to political commentator Robert Reich, the commercialization of education means “college and university administrators have incentives to spend more resources to attract those whom they consider [the] best students, rather than accommodating more lower-income students whose credentials and test scores do not add to an institution’s luster.” This requires costly marketing and recruiting on behalf of the institution, in part funded by application fees and students paying full tuition.

By charging application fees, colleges profit from students who would never be accepted in the first place. In fact, institutions know “with a high degree of accuracy whether a student is admissible before the application.” Furthermore, “the increasing competition – to be selected and to be selective – will exacerbate the widening inequalities that are raising the stakes in the first place.”

The repercussions of selectivity can be seen at both the individual and group level. Many Native Youth to College participants have applied to the Claremont Colleges, yet only two participants have enrolled in Pitzer.

Scott Scoggins is adamant that Pitzer applies “genuine effort to learn and work with this unique population.”

Dwayne Okpaise, an admissions counselor at Pitzer, said staff members are encouraged to reach out to “high performing students from diverse backgrounds."

"We do not actively try to recruit students we feel would not be admissible to the college, but I also do not think it is our place to actively discourage any student to apply,” he said.

Okpaise corrected “a common misunderstanding about college access outreach work,” saying that when admissions works with “Native youth, or students from any underserved population, [they try] to show them a wider landscape of higher education so [students] can be empowered to make informed decisions on their educational futures.”

While admissions staff may genuinely work to inspire and empower youth, these interactions may not adequately acknowledge and combat the repercussions of selectivity.

In short, Pitzer has a vested interest in motivating students to apply even if they will not be accepted. This cycle of selectivity contradicts the social justice principles at Pitzer’s core.

Considering the United States’ history of colonization and massacres of indigenous peoples, the discriminatory structures that determine opportunity for youth, and the uneven playing field of selectivity processes, universities need to counteract this false hope.

Since the Claremont Colleges are on Tongva land and surrounded by networks of indigenous people, programs such as Native Youth to College and Indige-Nation are necessary. These programs are indispensable because they create meaningful partnerships, decolonize frames of thought, and provide support for Tongva communities. Existing efforts, collaboration, and communication are applaudable.

However, Pitzer admissions staff must assess the responsibilities that come with recruiting student applications. They must develop an ethical selectivity process rooted in the actualization of core values, not the performance of these values.