In two previous briefs, we examined the degree attainment of Black and Latino adults, where we found a 17 percentage point gap in degree attainment between Black adults and White adults and a 24.5 percentage point gap in degree attainment between Latino adults and White adults. Here, we explore national trends and state-by-state differences in degree attainment for Native Americans. Nationally, there are significant differences in degree attainment among Native Americans and White adults, but degree attainment for these groups and the attainment gaps between them vary considerably across states.

National Degree Attainment Trends

Compared to 47 percent of White adults, only 24 percent of Native American, Alaskan Natives, and Native Hawaiian adults have earned a college degree at the associate’s degree level or higher. For perspective, current degree attainment levels for Native people are about 6 percentage points lower than the attainment levels of White adults in 1990, which was over a quarter of a century ago. Degree attainment among Native Americans trails the rate for White adults by 23 percentage points, but a closer look at the data indicates that the differences in degree attainment are not uniform across all levels of attainment. The gaps are more prominent at the higher levels (i.e., bachelor’s and graduate), which offer greater financial returns, job security, and employment options.

The gap in attainment between Native people at the associate’s degree level is rather small (i.e., less than 1 percentage point). But at the graduate degree level, only 4.8 percent of indigenous adults have earned a degree compared to 13.4 percent of White adults — a gap of 8.6 percentage points. The discrepancy is largest at the bachelor’s degree level, where the gap is over 13 percentage points. Just under 10 percent of Native adults have attained a bachelor’s degree, compared to 23.7 percent of White adults.

There have been modest gains over time for Native adults. Since 2000, Native and White degree attainment has increased by a little more than 4 percentage points. For Native adults in 2000, associate’s degree attainment was 7.4 percent, and bachelor’s degree attainment was 8.3 percent. The White associate’s and bachelor’s degree attainment rates were 7.8 percent and 19.3 percent respectively. But for graduate level attainment, the rate was slightly less than 4 percent for Native adults in 2000, compared to 10.6 percent for Whites.

State Degree Attainment Trends

While the national attainment data provide a benchmark, degree attainment rates in states for Native American vary widely by state. In this section, we examines state-level data on the following:

  1. Native American degree attainment
  2. Native American degree attainment growth since 2000
  3. Degree attainment gaps between Native American and White adults

Native American degree attainment
When you examine differences in degree attainment for Native American adults by state, there are several states that stand out at both the high and low end of the distribution. States attainment rates for Native American adults that fall between seven percentage points at the low end of the distribution and 10 percentage points at the high end of the distribution of the national average, which is approximately 24 percentage points. However, on the high end of the distribution, Colorado, Florida, Texas, and New York all have degree attainment rates that exceed 32 percent. Sadly, none of these states has a Native American population above 1 percent. States with higher percentages of Native Americans and degree attainment rates above the national average of 24 percent include Oklahoma (24.63%), Montana (25.77%) and North Dakota (29%). These three states have Native American degree attainment above the national average and Native Americans represent above 5 percent of the state population. While these states are above the national average, this means that in these states, only 1 in 4 Native American adults have an associate’s degree or higher.

On the lower end of the attainment distribution for Native American adults are South Dakota, New Mexico, Arizona, and Minnesota. These states have degree attainment rates that are below 20 percent. South Dakota has the lowest degree attainment rates for Native American adults at 17.6 percent, a difference of nearly 12 percentage points compared to North Dakota. These low attainment states have higher percentages of Native American adults than the high(er) attainment states highlighted above. In South Dakota, 7.6 percent of adults are Native American; in Arizona, the population is over 5 percent; and in New Mexico, 16 percent of adults are Native American.

Native American degree attainment growth
Since 2000, all of the states we examined have seen modest increases in degree attainment for Native American adults. Colorado, New York, and North Dakota stand out as states that have improved the most. North Dakota has increased Native American attainment by 8 percentage points, while Colorado has seen the most improvement with a 10.2 percentage point gain. Arizona, Wisconsin, and North Carolina have also seen above average growth with gains that have exceeded 7 percentage points. This still trails the attainment rate of White adults which increased nationally by 9.4 percentage points.

There are also several states that have experienced very little growth in attainment levels over the past decade and a half. South Dakota, Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, and Washington all saw gains of less than 2 percentage points. Washington saw a decrease in degree attainment among Native American adults with a decrease of half a percentage point gain. This is followed closely by Oregon, which has barely budged over the last 16 years — gains in degree attainment for Native American adults was .01 percentage points. Attention to these populations in the Pacific Northwest deserve special attention from advocates, educators, and legislators.

Degree attainment gaps
We also wanted to examine degree attainment equity in each state by looking at the gaps in attainment between Native American and White adults. In no state (in our sample) did Native American attainment exceed White attainment—and in 75 percent of those states, there is a gap that exceeds 19 percentage points. At nearly 12 percentage points, Florida had the smallest attainment gap in the country followed by Oklahoma with a gap of 13 percentage points. In Oklahoma, the gap is mostly a function of low attainment for White adults in that state as Native American attainment is only 24 percent, right at the national average. No state has a gap below 10 percentage points.

On the other end of the spectrum are Washington, Arizona, California, South Dakota, New Mexico and Minnesota, which all had extreme inequality in degree attainment between Native American and White adults — with gaps that exceeded 26 percentage points. One out of the 10 states with the largest gaps had degree attainment rates for Native American adults that surpassed the national average. Washington, Arizona, California, South Dakota, New Mexico and Minnesota are all states with large gaps where Native American residents have attainment rates below the national average for Native American adults.

Native Alaskan and Native Hawaiian Degree Attainment
While we cannot compare the attainment rate of Native Alaskan or Native Hawaiian degree attainment to that of other Native Alaskan or Hawaiian populations, we can use Native American degree attainment as a baseline to determine how well Alaska and Hawaii are doing in educating Native Alaskan and Hawaiian populations.

Alaskan Natives
Degree attainment for Native Alaskan adults at the associate’s degree and higher is at 11 percent compared to over 43 percent for White adults in Alaska, a gap of nearly 33 percentage points. The degree attainment rate for Native Alaskans is over 7 percentage points lower than degree attainment in the South Dakota, which has the lowest degree attainment rate for Native Americans. The gap between Native Alaskan and White adults is nearly equal to the largest gap in the United States. Finally, degree attainment growth for Native Alaskans in the U.S. since 2000 has been less than 2 percentage points. Alaska needs to do better by Native Alaskans. While the state has significant rural areas, programs like the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program (ANSEP) create pathways for Native Alaskan students in a culturally relevant way. Alaska should invest in programs that build the pipeline and create opportunities in Alaska for Native students.

Hawaiian Natives
Degree attainment for Native Hawaiians is significantly higher for than that of Alaskan Natives. The degree attainment rate for Native Hawaiian adults is at nearly 35 percent, 11 percentage points above degree attainment of Native Americans and 24 percentage points higher than degree attainment for Native Alaskans. Despite the high attainment of Hawaiian Natives, the gap between Native Hawaiians and White adults is 21 percentage points. Finally, degree attainment for Native Hawaiians has increased by over 7 percentage points since the year 2000. This is above the national average for Native Americans and would rank fourth nationally for degree growth. Hawaii has been intentional in the attainment goal in closing gaps and increasing degree attainment for Hawaiian Natives. Additionally, programs like Hawaii Promise make college more affordable for students and creates affordable pathways for Native Hawaiians to earn a credential.


Native degree attainment in the United States needs to be closely scrutinized. Part of the low attainment of Latinos in the United States is the impact of immigration. But the fact that Native American adults have a degree attainment rate of 24 percent (1 percentage point higher than all Latinos and 6 percentage points behind U.S.-born Latinos) speaks to the failure of U.S. schools from K-12 to postsecondary. Fifteen percent of Native Americans do not have a high school diploma or high school equivalency. Therefore, states need to be intentional about creating culturally relevant and inclusive pathways for Native American students. States also need to diversify the teacher prep pipeline to increase the number of Native American teachers in the classroom. Finally, states need to improve the services, support and financial support of Native American students and to create pathways for adult students with some college or no degree to increase degree attainment.