COVID-19 and the resulting economic downturn have negatively impacted indigenous communities, exacerbating already existing gaps in education and workforce. According to the 2020 Census, American Indians and Alaska Natives accounted for 2.9 percent of the U.S. population and are steadily growing. However, indigenous communities have been historically underserved in education and the workforce, with postsecondary education attainment rates trailing other racial groups at 25 percent between the ages 25 and 64—compared to Hispanic communities at 25.5 percent and Black communities at 32.4 percent. These education gaps can result in difficulty accessing quality jobs, increasing the likelihood of poverty-level wages and job insecurity.
Access to data that follows indigenous students after high school and into postsecondary and the workforce would allow leaders to gain insights into these opportunity gaps and work to close them. To do so, state leaders should explore strategies to improve their state’s data collection processes to be more representative of underserved populations’ education and workforce experiences. One state taking steps to do this is Montana.
Current data collection efforts within state agencies to capture the experiences of indigenious students either do not exist or lack cultural relevance. Montana’s indigenous population makes up over 9 percent of the state population; however, the state’s P–20W data system only follows indigenous students through the state’s public schooling system from K–12 into postsecondary. With seven recognized Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) operating in the state, Montana is missing a significant portion of their indigenous communities who are pursuing a postsecondary education at a tribal college. According to the Lumina Foundation’s Stronger Nation report, which looks at states’ education attainment goals, in 2019, 23 percent of the American Indian/Alaska Native population had obtained an associate’s degree or higher compared to 45 percent of state residents having obtained a similar level credential. In order to close this gap, leaders in Montana need better data to understand the educational experiences of all indigenous students.
Fortunately, Montana is using federal grant funds to take important steps to create a more inclusive data collection process. Montana’s Office of Public Instruction (OPI) and Montana State University (MSU) have collaborated to engage the tribal communities and TCUs to gain a better understanding of student outcomes. The project was funded through Montana’s Statewide Longitudinal Data System (SLDS) grant with the objective of creating data linkages with the state’s TCUs. OPI currently links data from all of the Montana university system schools, except TCUs. The state produces annual and bi-annual reports on indigenous students’ academic progress; however, these reports do not extend into postsecondary or highlight important outcome metrics, such as postsecondary enrollment and completion.
Community engagement is an approach states can use to improve not only who’s represented in the data but the questions directing the data collection. It helps to establish trust between state agencies and impacted communities. This work is especially important for tribal communities that have been historically discriminated against and marginalized as a result of government policies. It requires state leaders to be thoughtful about how their state’s P–20W data system can support decisionmaking at the local and institution level. Similar to Montana, state leaders can use existing funding streams to do the following:
- Create a more representative data system;
- Build trust in the data collection; and
- Create measures that are inclusive of community interests and concerns.
With the inclusion of TCUs in the state’s longitudinal data system, Montana would be able to answer their most pressing questions, including evaluating how the state’s indigenous populations are faring on its statewide educational attainment goals. Other states should take similar steps to engage with their marginalized communities, ensuring that impacted populations are at the table as states are working to solve equity gaps in education and the workforce.