May 17 2021

Online Learning Increases College Access for Underserved Native American Students

The California Indian Nations College saw a 22 percent increase in enrollment last year. Here’s a look at how they did it.

While some colleges and universities struggled during the rush to remote learning last year, others rose to the challenge. The California Indian Nations College is one example of a school that has not only survived but thrived. The community college in Palm Desert, Calif., which largely serves a Native American student population, saw a 22 percent increase in enrollment during the shift to distance learning in fall 2020.

“Like many colleges, the COVID-19 pandemic closed our classrooms and forced us to reconsider how we could best serve our students,” says CINC President Celeste Townsend. “Thankfully, through the amazing dexterity of our students, faculty and staff, we were able to bring the virtual classroom into homes and onto reservations for our students throughout California.”

Considering that community colleges across the nation experienced steep enrollment declines during the pandemic, here is a hopeful look at how CINC, a 3-year-old institution, defeated the odds and improved college access.

Making Educational Technology Accessible for Native American Students

To ensure a smooth transition to online learning, the college took a close look at their students’ ability to access technology.

“We are fortunate to have a clear understanding of who our student population is. We had very direct and clear communication with our students, and were able identify what their needs were, what their obstacles were, so that we could respond and react to that,” says Shawn Ragan, vice president and chief operations officer.

That meant providing not just online courses but also the digital course materials needed for tribal distance learning success, as well as student success in general in rural settings.

“If the course was online, we had to make sure the books were also available online,” he says. “We didn’t want students struggling to get books just because they didn’t have access to a bookstore during the pandemic.”

MORE ON EDTECH: Promoting online access with hotspots, laptops and planning.

The school also took steps to ensure that educators were ready to make the leap.

“Our faculty went through distance education training before they could teach the classes,” Ragan says. “The transition from an in-person class to an online class — it’s a very different setup. It’s a very different dynamic. We wanted to be sure they had the tools to be responsive to their students. The context is different, and we wanted to ensure that they would be ready to address those changes.”

Above all, it helped that CINC had a head start on the technology front. “We already had programs in place that helped get Chromebooks to our students who needed them,” says Ragan.

“We also had MiFi portable hotspot devices for students who don’t have home internet access. They get the devices on loan from the college for free. As long as they have cell service, they are able to get internet,” he says. Both the Chromebooks and the MiFi devices are available to any student who needs them.

A College Increases Enrollment by Empowering Marginalized Students

For a college that serves a geographically disparate population, the ability to offer online courses opened the door for new enrollments.

“We’ve had students matriculate from over 50 tribes,” Ragan says. “For those who wanted to be able to stay home, for those who are living on a reservation or in a rural area or a remote area, this opened a new door.”

It was crucial for CINC to rise to the needs of students during the pandemic, given the equity and access issues that indigenous populations have faced in the past.

RELATED: Learn how higher ed is improving tech access for underserved students.

“Education historically has been used to deny American Indians of their identity, to strip them of their culture and their language, and to try to force them into conformity,” Ragan says. “We’re able to integrate native pedagogy, native culture, native language, native tradition — and give voice to it.”

That has been a powerful enrollment motivator for students who are often marginalized in traditional academic settings.

“One of our students gave a presentation earlier this year, talking about her experience at a different community college,” Ragan says. “People there were surprised when they found out she was an American Indian. Someone made the comment to her, ‘We didn’t even know Indians still existed.’ A lot of our students have felt invisible.”

As a Native American institution, CINC is changing that dynamic — thanks in part to its effective shift to distance learning.

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