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American Indian enrollment up at UW schools; graduation rates lag

Enrollment of American Indian students in the University of Wisconsin system jumped 50 percent in four years, according to the latest available figures, but graduation and retention rates are well behind the general student population.

Enrollment of American Indian students in the University of Wisconsin system jumped 50 percent in four years, according to the latest available figures, but graduation and retention rates are well behind the general student population.

UW figures from 2009 show more than 1,800 Indian students enrolled -- including 95 at the University of Wisconsin-Superior -- 750 more than in fall 2005. But the six-year graduation rate for Indian students in 2009 was only 40 percent, compared to 65 percent for all students.

The six-year graduation rate at UWS was 16.2 percent, the lowest in the system. UW-Green Bay is next-lowest with 27.7 percent and UW-Madison is highest with a 54.1 percent American Indian graduation rate.

UWS First Nation Studies Associate Professor Alvin "Chip" Beal said since 2009, his campus has improved the graduation rate to 26 percent, but he acknowledged that needs improvement.

"The UW system as a whole is just beginning to get a handle on this issue," Beal said. "We just need to make a better home for them (Indian students)."

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Ed Manydeeds of Eau Claire is the first Indian member of the UW Board of Regents. He said retention and, ultimately, graduation are problems.

"Native Americans are more than capable of being successful," Manydeeds said. "It's just a struggle to have them take advantage of opportunities and stay with it. That's something that we're constantly dealing with."

Manydeeds said much of the issue can be attributed to cultural differences. He's hoping UW campuses have a place for Indian students to go -- "As kind of a community center for them, taking the place of their families or extended families on the reservation; which is very important to Native people, to have that center where they can go for support and strength."

Northland College in Ashland had 15 Indian students last year, and officials hope to improve on that number. It's just starting an Indigenous People's Center with the help from a grant by the Otto Bremer Foundation.

Red Cliff Band member Dr. James Pete is the center's new director. He said he plans to start cultural sharing meetings with the campus and community about First Nation culture and tribal sovereignty.

"The wild rice, the maple syrup-making, the idea with the spirituality part of it, being able to share what can be shared in that open setting, looking at our Native art and maybe doing short community sessions on how to do beadwork, how to make moccasins," Pete said.

He said that understanding can foster respect.

"That's probably something that's been worked at since 1890, and it's going to be worked on until 2090 and beyond," Pete said. "That's part of the challenge that we all have."

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Manydeeds said the UW System is working with tribes and Indian student groups to try to foster that welcoming culture in hopes of seeing retention and graduation rates increase. He said he hopes a memo of understanding will be drawn up later this year to map out a strategy to achieve those goals.

UWS will graduate 18 Indian students on Saturday.

Wisconsin Public Radio can be heard in the Twin Ports at 91.3 FM, in Ashland at 97.7 FM or online at wpr.org/news.

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