Diversity & Democracy: Civic Learning for Shared Futures
Diversity Innovations Institutional Leadership and Commitment
Diversity Digest Volume 7, Number 4

Diversity Digest
Volume 8,
Number 1
(2004)

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Institutional Leadership and Commitment
The Right to Learn and the Pathways to College Network
Faculty Involvement
Designing Pathways to a Four-Year Degree
Preparing Students to Succeed in Broad Access Postsecondary Institutions
African-American Student Achievement in Historically Black Colleges and Universities
College Choice and Diversity
Making Diversity News
Media Watch
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Linking Student Support with Student Success: The Posse Foundation
Research
Diversity Digest’s New Editor

Linking Student Support with Student Success:
The Posse Foundation

By Deborah Bial, president and founder of The Posse Foundation

Posse Foundation
Photo courtesy of Posse Foundation

The Posse Foundation is a college access and leadership development program that identifies, recruits, and selects student leaders from public high schools and sends them in small cohort groups, called Posses, to top colleges and universities across the country. The goal is to increase the access and success of underserved students at leading institutions.

Posse started in New York City in 1989 after one student said to me that he never would have dropped out of college if he had his “posse” with him. It seemed like an incredibly simple idea: Why not send a tightly linked team of students, or a posse, to college? Urban students who experience the culture shock of an out-of-state campus would then have a built-in support system.

Vanderbilt University became the first institution to take a chance on the Posse program, which had no history or record of accomplishment at that time. Fifteen years later, The Posse Foundation has twenty partner colleges and universities and a stellar record of success, with nearly 1,000 Posse Scholars graduated or currently enrolled. These young people have won over $85 million in leadership and merit scholarships from Posse partner colleges. Most importantly, the Scholars are succeeding and graduating at a rate of over 90 percent, demonstrating a direct link between access and success.

Each Posse consists of ten students from diverse backgrounds. They are chosen because they exhibit outstanding leadership and academic potential. The concept of a Posse is rooted in the belief that a small, diverse group of talented students—a Posse—carefully selected and prepared for their chosen campuses, can serve as a catalyst for individual and campus community development. These small groups serve as interdependent and interconnected support units within the institution and help promote students’ individual and collective success.

Preparing Diverse Leaders

Communications Tips

The debates over race-based affirmative action have generated a large amount of media coverage. It is possible to build on existing media interest in a topic to generate news stories that focus on related programs. For example, reporters might be interested in programs sponsored by The Posse Foundation that address college access and success by focusing on non-cognitive variables such as leadership ability. Reporters frequently will look for angles for stories that reframe a much-debated issue. If you have a Posse program or something similar on your campus, consider pitching a story about it to your local education reporter. To do this successfully you may need to educate the reporter about why college success, especially for traditionally underrepresented students, depends on more than test scores and grade-point averages. Suggest that an article could address the many factors that contribute to college success.

The Posse Foundation believes that the leaders of the new century should reflect this country’s increasingly rich demographic mix. Our nation’s future rests on our ability to educate strong leaders from diverse backgrounds who can develop consensus solutions to complex social problems. Currently, neither the campuses of top universities nor the country’s workforce adequately reflect the changing demographics of the nation’s population. The rising cost of higher education and the competition for the highest-achieving students have created homogeneous campus environments in the country’s top universities. In turn, fewer students from minority and low-income families are graduating from these institutions and continuing on to senior-level leadership positions in the workforce.

Among the factors contributing to the lack of persons from ethnic minority groups and lower-income families at highly selective colleges and universities are the narrow parameters of the selection process. Two critical factors for acceptance into top institutions are high standardized test scores and an excellent academic background from a strong high school program. While these sound like reasonable criteria for measuring academic potential, they unnecessarily narrow the pool of young people who could succeed at the best schools. The criteria also narrow the diversity and scope of abilities represented in selective universities and colleges. Many capable and promising students are unfortunately overlooked.

Compounding the challenges admissions officers face in recruiting a diverse student body is the reality of culture shock for many students. Young people from nontraditional backgrounds who are admitted to selective institutions often report feeling isolated from the rest of the student body. Consequently, these students tend to leave school at a higher rate than their white and upper-income counterparts. Many universities recognize the lack of racial and cultural diversity as a problem. Most universities routinely seek ways to recruit and retain underrepresented students. The Posse Foundation offers an effective model for improving the pathway to and through college.


Posse advances three major ways of addressing some of the challenges of recruiting and graduating a diverse student body:

  • Expand the pool from which top colleges and universities can recruit.
  • Help institutions build more intercultural campus environments so that they can become more welcoming institutions for students from all backgrounds.
  • Ensure that Posse Scholars persist in their academic studies and graduate so that they can take leadership positions in the workforce.

Training for Success

Posse achieves its goals through four program components that focus on the following critical areas: recruitment; preparation to navigate the collegiate environment; ongoing mentoring in college, and support for structured interaction with the broader student body; and career transition activities.

  1. The Posse Foundation developed an innovative system to identify, evaluate, and prepare students for the Posse program. The Dynamic Assessment Process (DAP) represents a unique evaluation process designed to identify outstanding young leaders often overlooked by traditional college admissions measures. DAP offers students an opportunity to demonstrate their intrinsic leadership ability, academic promise, skills at working in a team setting, and desire to succeed.
  2. The Eight-Month Pre-Collegiate Training Program is a critical element in the success of Posse students. Posse Scholars meet weekly as a Posse for two-hour workshops during their senior year in high school. These meetings with trainers focus on team-building, cross-cultural communication, leadership, and academic excellence. In addition, Posse’s Writing Program engages lawyers, journalists, professors, and others to act as academic coaches.
  3. Once students are enrolled in college, the Campus Program works to ensure the retention of Posse Scholars and to increase the impact of the Scholars and the program on the campus. Every year, Scholars host a weekend-long PossePlus Retreat that brings members of the larger student body together to examine important campus issues. A mentor meets with Posse Scholars during their first two years of college, and Posse staff members make regular visits to Scholars, university administrators, and campus mentors.
  4. The Career Program helps Posse Scholars make the transition from being leaders on campus to serving as leaders in the workforce by providing them with the tools and opportunities they need to secure career-enhancing internships and highly competitive jobs. The Career Program also develops partnerships with prominent national and international corporations and organizations in order to offer unique internship opportunities.

Why It Works

A recent evaluation of The Posse Program conducted by The Conservation Company found that the Posse Foundation is identifying highly motivated students who can succeed at
selective institutions despite their lower than average SAT/ACT scores and despite the fact that they may come from under-financed public high schools. The study found that 70 percent of Posse Scholars have either founded or been president of at least one campus-based organization, club, or academic program. Posse Scholars also have a significant impact on their campuses by hosting annual retreats to discuss important campus issues, serving as campus leaders, engaging actively in the learning process, and speaking on social and political issues. The program has been so successful that several Posse partner institutions, including DePauw University in Indiana and Grinnell College in Iowa, have each decided to take two Posses per year (twenty students)—a move that will yield eighty Posse scholars over a four-year period on each of their small campuses.

Posse graduates are making the most of the premier educational experiences they receive and are committed to giving back to their communities. They become teachers, engineers, lawyers, social workers, and bankers. They are tutoring public high school students, joining community initiatives, and returning to The Posse Foundation as staff.

The Posse Foundation plans to expand its initiative. This year over 4,500 young people were nominated for 223 Posse Scholarships. With sites firmly anchored in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City, Posse has just received a major grant from the Sallie Mae Fund to open a new site in Washington, DC. The Posse Foundation seeks to increase its number of partner institutions over the next several years to respond to increased interest.

For more information visit www.possefoundation.org.

Questions, comments, and suggestions regarding Diversity & Democracy should be directed to Kathryn Peltier Campbell at campbell@aacu.org.
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