A Forgotten Community in the United States

High rates of functional illiteracy among American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) youth are nothing new. Although these figures are largely absent from media coverage and public awareness, their effects are felt socially and economically. Many AI/AN youths won’t even finish high school—let alone achieve their career dreams.


Native American literacyLiteracy Failures in the Classroom


In 2011, researchers reported that [1]53%of the 4th grade AI/AN students tested failed to meet basic proficiency standards in reading. Basic proficiency is defined as “partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade.” When the same assessment was conducted in 2015, test scores did not significantly improve [2]. These statistics are mirrored in low high school and college graduation rates and economic achievement among American Indian populations.


literacy Native American

How Education Impacts Later Success


Low literacy rates and poor educational outcomes greatly affect AI/AN financial security. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS), individuals 25 or older who hold bachelor’s degrees make $1872 more per month than high school graduates. Those with professional degrees earn $4616 more per month than high school graduates.

Low educational achievement means lower incomes in American Indian communities. In contrast to the 10% national average, only 5% of American Indians hold graduate and professional degrees. [3] Similarly, while 19% of the US population holds a bachelor’s degree, only 9% of American Indians can claim this achievement.  

These figures underscore the extent to which low academic achievement disproportionately affects AI/AN populations. For too many, adequate lifetime earnings and favorable career outcomes are simply out of reach.

Steps Forward & How You Can Help


Are you interested in literacy, education, or simply giving back? Consider volunteering with organizations that are passionate about improving lives through literacy and education. You can organize an advocacy campaign to raise awareness about the issue or use social media to spread the word. Alternatively, if you don’t have the time for volunteering or advocacy, literacy organizations welcome donations that go toward literacy supplies and programs.

*American Indian & Alaska Native (AI/AN) are the identifying terms used in this post. These terms are consistent with terms used in the referenced literature, but they do not represent the unique identities and experiences of individual tribes or their members.


Written by: Alex Blum


[1] The National Assessment of Education Progress.https://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pubs/studies/2012466.aspx

[2]  https://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/subject/publications/studies/pdf/2017161.pdf

[3] US Department of Education publication (2008)

[4] Image source: http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/11/3/us-census-challenge-counting-every-american-indian-and-alaska-native.html