Nearly three out of four American Indian college students don't earn degrees because of poor academic preparation, inadequate financial aid or personal problems, a survey has found.

"The simple truth is most Native Americans and their families . . . do not have the financial resources required to pay their college bills," concluded the study, "The Forgotten Minority: Native Americans in Higher Education," by Robert N. Wells Jr., a professor of government at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y.The survey, conducted by mail in August, included responses from 33 two- and four-year institutions with at least 4 percent American Indian enrollment. It found that graduation rates had improved slightly during the 1980s, thanks primarily to better minority counseling and support systems on some campuses.

But the study concluded that retention and graduation rates remain "disturbingly low." It found that 27.3 percent of American Indian students entering college earned degrees, but more than half drop out in their freshman year.

According to federal statistics, 20.1 percent of American Indian college students from the high school class of 1980 earned either bachelor's degrees or two-year associate degrees.

Fifty-five percent of all students in four-year private schools and 46 percent of four-year public college students eventually earn bachelor's degrees, according to federal figures.

Some 91,000 of the 12.5 million students in U.S. colleges are American Indians or Alaskan natives, according to latest U.S. Department of Education figures.

The average cost of attending the schools in the survey was $5,400, but the average financial aid grant was $1,531 per student. That leaves at least a $3,000 unmet need for each American Indian student.

In an interview, Wells also cited lack of Indian faculty at the institutions surveyed. There were an average of nine such teachers at the colleges surveyed.

On the positive side, about half the schools surveyed, 16, had teacher- training programs tailored for American Indians.

The colleges cited four reasons hindering American Indian college students: inadequate academic preparation, difficulty adjusting to the college environment, personal and family problems and financial difficulties.

Twenty-eight of the 33 colleges responding to the survey - including the College of Eastern Utah in Blanding - agreed to be identified by name.