How to Attract More Native American Students

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Wednesday, July 27, 2022
By Deanna Kennedy, Daniel Stewart, Joseph Scott Gladstone
Co-author Joe Gladstone in his Native American academic gown. Credit: Laura Campbell
What it will take to recruit more tribal members into business programs—and, consequently, into business academia.
  • By recruiting Native American students, business schools can provide much-needed business training and generate greater societal impact in tribal communities.
  • Faculty who engage Native American tribal community leaders in programmatic initiatives are exposed to cultural perspectives that expand their knowledge and skills.
  • By creating dedicated pipeline programs with tribal colleges and other organizations, business schools can help Native American students reframe their attitudes about the relevance of business education.

AACSB’s 2020 accreditation standards ask business schools to address diversity and inclusion issues in their schools. Under the standards, schools are encouraged to adopt innovative strategies that reduce barriers for all students. As three Native American business faculty from different tribal communities, academic business disciplines, and universities, we want to recommend ways that business schools can recruit, retain, and support the success of one group of students in particular: Native Americans.

Our recommendations are informed by our history, experience, and engagement as Native students, faculty members, and administrators in AACSB-accredited business schools. We hope our insights will encourage business schools to take the actions needed to attract more students from Native American tribes in the U.S.—and from Indigenous populations all over the world—to business education and academia.

Benefits of Native American Participation

There are many reasons for business schools to increase the number of American Indian students who enroll in their programs. However, here are three we find most important:

It generates societal impact. Recruiting Native American students is a pathway for business schools to generate positive change in the community—an important objective under the AACSB 2020 standards.

Native American communities need leaders who are trained to increase the efficacy of economic development in tribal communities. While there are many governmental and social services agencies within tribal communities, the number of for-profit tribal businesses is disproportionately low. Some tribes have seen success with casino venues, but not all tribes have casinos.

Moreover, when tribal communities rely on casinos as their primary source of revenue, that does not necessarily translate into a robust and diverse economy. As such, Native American communities need access to business education that can advance their opportunities for successful entrepreneurship, business management, and ultimately, economic development.

It broadens students’ global mindsets. Native American students bring diverse experiences to the classroom, and they offer worldviews that are often distinct from mainstream culture. By engaging with individuals from Native American cultures, all students can increase their awareness of cultural differences, become more open to different perspectives, and enrich their global mindsets.

It increases faculty awareness and program agility. In our experience, Native American students often become resources for mainstream professors, by helping faculty learn about cultures with which they are not familiar. When faculty engage Native American tribal community leaders in programmatic initiatives, this exposure to new intellectual and cultural perspectives helps faculty expand their knowledge, abilities, skills, and strategic thinking.

For example, core tribal values such as environmental awareness, collective decision making, and spiritual inclusivity are a good fit with the modern organizational values. As such, incorporating tribal members and stories into strategic discussions may inform the way we educate the corporate world.

Our Recommendations

Although business schools can enrich their programs and communities by attracting more Native American students, administrators might be tempted to rely only on their broader diversity policies to achieve this objective. But we believe that schools can be more successful if they adopt more targeted strategies.

The first place to start is faculty recruitment. For nearly 30 years, The PhD Project, an organization developed by the KPMG Foundation to increase diversity among business school faculty, has diligently worked to quintuple the numbers of faculty members from Black/African American, Latinx/Hispanic American, and Native American groups. The organization’s mission is driven by the idea that when students see people like themselves in the front of the class, they are more likely to pursue careers as business leaders and business academics.

While The PhD Project has achieved success in increasing the numbers of Black and Hispanic faculty over the years, the increase in Native American faculty has been extremely low. The PhD Project reports that there are currently 66 Native American business faculty across all business disciplines—the most are in management, while the fewest are in accounting and information systems.

There are only 66 Native American business faculty across all disciplines. With only three Native American students in business doctoral programs, the outlook for growth in this demographic is bleak.

Unfortunately, this number includes three faculty who have recently retired and one other who has left academia. Moreover, there are only three Native American students in business doctoral programs as of this writing. With such a limited pipeline, the outlook for growth in this demographic is bleak.

Given the dearth of Native Americans across business school faculty, schools need to think innovatively and strategically about how they can attract instructors and role models for Native students. To accomplish this goal, they must strengthen the pipeline of Native American business students into business doctoral programs.

To start, schools can become university partners of The PhD Project, which will help them connect minority students to information about doctoral education and recruit faculty from PhD Project alumni. Next, they can launch initiatives focused on the following:

Exposing faculty to Native cultures. Clearly, we do not think it is necessary for all instructors to be Native, but all instructors should be familiar with this cultural perspective. Therefore, schools should dedicate resources to this objective and create more opportunities for faculty to broaden their perspectives about Native American culture. For example, faculty can benefit from attending Native conferences, engaging with American Indian Studies events, and especially collaborating with community partners and tribes. Such experiences will better prepare faculty to teach, mentor, and advise Native American students.

Providing dedicated support and opportunities to students. It’s important for faculty to meet Native students where they are by encouraging them to bring their whole identities to school. For instance, faculty might provide undergraduate and graduate students with research opportunities to work with tribal communities. Or, they can create internships specifically for students to work with Native faculty, Native businesses, or tribal economic departments.

Encouraging relevant scholarship. Schools also can benefit from understanding the reasons why the number of Native American students in their business programs is so low, compared to other racial and ethnic groups at their universities. Unfortunately, schools are faced with a Catch-22: The scholars most likely to take deep interest in examining the causes and solutions to this problem are those students who business schools currently lack.

Although there aren’t many Native American students or faculty at this time, schools still should begin taking steps to seek out and encourage those who will pursue this scholarship. If a school puts the infrastructure in place and builds a welcoming environment, they will come, as we describe below.

Relevant, Cohort-Based Programming

Outside of the tribal college system, only a limited number of programs have been successful in training Native American business students. We have been part of some of these programs. In particular, Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, is home to the unique MBA in American Indian Entrepreneurship (MBA-AIE). Established in 2001, the MBA-AIE currently has more than 75 alumni working in various roles in the Native American community.

Gonzaga brings in a new cohort of students every two years; each student is part of a federally recognized American Indian tribe. Because MBA-AIE students have their own sections and unique courses, in-class discussions can focus on issues that are germane to the Native American community, which enables the curriculum to take on an Indigenous perspective.

Another example of a targeted program is the Executive Education Certificate Program, a collaboration between the Muckleshoot Tribal College and the University of Washington–Bothell. Held in 2018 and 2019, this program was co-developed to give tribal members the business knowledge they need to fill their own tribal business positions on the reservation. Held on-site at the Muckleshoot Tribal College campus, the practice-based certificate featured community projects sourced from the tribal community.


Four Native American students take part in a small group presentation as part of their community-based projects at the Muckleshoot Tribal College during the 2019 certificate program.
Native American students at the Muckleshoot Tribal College give a group presentation for their community-based project during the 2019 Executive Education Certificate Program, a collaboration between the college and the University of Washington–Bothell. (Photo courtesy of Deanna Kennedy)

The inclusive curriculum engaged students of different ages, functional experience, and cultural backgrounds. Moreover, by bringing the programming to the reservation, the program served a diverse learner population that included both students from various local tribes and nontribal members working at tribal organizations.

The cohort structure of these programs fosters engagement and retention of Native students. These students often feel more comfortable sharing ideas with peers who have similar experiences and who are managing similar frustrations and tribal community issues.

Programs such as those mentioned above are informed in part by interactions with the tribes themselves. After all, tribal members are the ones who ultimately are working toward the economic development of their tribal community. Thus, it is important for faculty to understand the tribal members’ educational needs, in relation to where the instruction is held and what types of business training best supports the community’s goals.

Pipelines That Change Perceptions

Even if business schools hire Native American faculty, train non-native faculty, and develop relevant programming, they still may face psychological hurdles as they work to recruit Native American students. Some Native American students may not perceive the pursuit of a business degree as a viable or desired path; others might see business principles as inconsistent with tribal values.

This perspective promotes a self-fulfilling prophecy—as potential students see low numbers of Native American business graduates, mentors, and business owners, fewer view the study of business as a viable pursuit.

Other nonbusiness academic disciplines have been more successful in attracting Native American students, because they have adopted recruitment strategies that clarify how their programming aligns with tribal values. For example, the American Indian Science and Engineering Society and the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics & Native Americans in Science sponsor conferences meant to promote science and engineering to Native American students.

Business schools must make a concerted effort to overcome social norms that may deter prospective Native American college students from pursuing business degrees.

Although business is no less important than science to the values and dreams of tribal members, the business discipline does not have similar prominent, longstanding, and well-funded societies. Therefore, business schools must make a concerted effort to overcome social norms that may deter prospective Native American college students from pursuing business degrees. This can happen in three primary ways.

First, business schools can partner with high schools, tribal colleges, tribal council education divisions, and Native student advisors at two-year colleges. They can work with these partners to start mentorship programs and create dedicated pipeline programs that help Native American students reframe their attitudes about the relevance of business education to their future careers.

Second, schools can visit students in high school to demonstrate and discuss ways that business curricula can support tribal economic needs and benefit tribal communities. Finally, they can partner with Native businesses to showcase internships and business opportunities.

It Starts With Outreach

To achieve true diversity, business schools must hire more Native American faculty to serve as role models and mentors for Native American students. But with so few of these faculty in the pipeline, schools first must build relationships with tribal colleges to recruit more Native American students to business doctoral programs, as well as generate opportunities for faculty to meet members of tribal populations.

Beyond adding more Native faculty, universities can develop curricular programming, conduct targeted outreach, and create specific opportunities that address the needs of Native American students and communities.

By making the enrollment of Native American students a part of their continuous improvement efforts, business schools won’t just enrich the educational experiences of all business students and faculty. They also will achieve greater societal impact in their communities.

Deanna Kennedy
Associate Dean of Academic Programs and Associate Professor, School of Business, University of Washington—Bothell
Daniel Stewart
Professor of Entrepreneurship, School of Business Administration, Gonzaga University
Joseph Scott Gladstone
Assistant Professor of Management, Carson College of Business, Washington State University
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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