'Posses' Keep Students on Academic Track
Posse program puts social motivation to good use
High school senior Sydney R. Lewis knows moving from New York City to Greencastle, Ind. (pop. 10,300), to attend DePauw University in the fall will be a big adjustment. But going with a group of nine other students she's already bonded with through the Posse Foundation makes her more confident about the transition.
"This way, you have support there. Whenever you're homesick, you can go to the posse, and they can help you feel better," said Ms. Lewis, 18. "Also, you might have trouble in one class, and someone else has trouble in a class that you are pretty good at, and you can help each other. You make friends before you actually get there, so it's not just you and a swarm of a whole bunch of kids."
Posse Foundation founder Deborah Bial first got the idea for the peer-group approach to college when she was working at a nonprofit, after-school leadership program in New York City in 1989. One of her students returned from college saying he wouldn't have dropped out if he'd had his posse with him.
"It made a lot of sense. If you could send a team, a posse, a group of kids together to college, they'd be more likely to back each other up and less likely to turn around and come home," said Ms. Bial, who is now the president of the New York City-based nonprofit scholarship organization.
The Posse Foundation chooses diverse groups of high school seniors from nine major cities who have strong leadership skills and academic potential but who may not have stellar test scores and could be overlooked in the traditional college-selection process. Besides New York, the cities involved are: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, and Washington. The selected students are given full-tuition scholarships by one of 51 elite partner institutions, including Vanderbilt University in Nashville; Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.; and the University of California, Berkeley. Last year, 15,000 students were nominated by their schools for 670 scholarships, which are not need-based.
It's a sought-after scholarship, in part because of the results. While typical college-graduation rates hover around 57 percent, about 90 percent of Posse scholars finish in four years. And nearly 80 percent of Posse scholars have either founded an organization or been the president of an existing organization on campus.
The foundation has basked in some high-level attention of late. President Barack Obama mentioned the success of a Posse scholar in this year's State of the Union Address and highlighted the foundation's work at the recent White House summit on college access for disadvantaged students.
Rooted in Research
Research shows that cohort models and learning communities can help students academically and socially.
"Students who share an experience together, especially an educational one, tend to do better together," said Vincent Tinto, the author of "Completing College: Rethinking Institutional Action" and a professor emeritus at Syracuse University, in New York. It's critical to focus efforts on helping students get off to a solid start in the beginning of college, said Mr. Tinto. Of all students who leave college before getting a degree, nearly half do so before the start of the second year, he added.
The Posse Foundation is one of many initiatives that use social levers to motivate students. The nonprofit College for Every Student, based in Essex, N.Y., works with 20,000 students in 24 states to promote student success through peer mentoring and leadership training. The St. Paul, Minn.-based College Possible helps groups of low-income students navigate the college-application process together and extends that support with coaches through the first year of college. And, in an effort to retain students, campuses are trying peer-mentoring programs, among other interventions, to nurture perseverance.
"The messaging and communication is a whole lot stronger when it comes from the students themselves," said Rick Dalton, College for Every Student's president and chief executive officer. "They can serve as role models."
With Posse, the training and bonding begins well before high school graduation. After the intensive selection process, students from various high schools within each city are placed into a posse. They meet weekly at that city's Posse office beginning in January through August, when they go to campus together.
During those eight months of precollegiate training, seniors soak up advice on everything from time management, to sitting together in the front row in a lecture, to being open to people from different cultural backgrounds. Since the program draws from urban schools, there are more students of color and students from poor and working-class families in the program than is typical of the overall U.S. population. On campus, each posse meets regularly, under the guidance of a mentor.
Jake J. Moreno-Coplon, a 2008 graduate of Middlebury College in Vermont, said his posse was made up of "superstars" who weren't just in college to make it as individuals but were committed to blazing a trail for others.
"When you get like-minded kids who are 16 or 17 when they first meet each other, there is also this generous and friendly competition," he said. "You want to succeed and you want each other to succeed, but you don't want to be left behind, either."
While her other friends are talking about going away to college as the "end of the world" because they are leaving their friends and favorite foods behind, high school senior Suzanne Del Rosario doesn't share that anxiety. Ms. Del Rosario, whose parents immigrated from the Dominican Republic to New York City, said she feels her posse is like taking part of home with her, and the other young scholars will always have her back.
"[The Posse scholars] are going to be my new home, the family I can always go to," said Ms. Del Rosario, who will be attending Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., this fall. "When you are comfortable in your surroundings, you achieve more than you think you can ever achieve."
Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., has hosted Posse scholars for more than two decades, and in 2008, it was the first to start a science posse, established at the urging of chemistry professor Irving R. Epstein. He noticed scholars who started out intending to major in a science discipline would get discouraged and leave the field—sometimes with the encouragement of their posse.
"Others would say: 'You are smarter than we are, working twice as hard. Get out of science,'" said Mr. Epstein. "If all 10 were committed to science, the push would be inward, not outward."
The students participate in a two-week science-immersion program before the fall semester to help ease the transition to the rigorous coursework. The scholars then take many of the same introductory science courses and study together in groups.
Nicholas L. Medina is a member of a STEM Posse at Brandeis who is graduating this spring with a double degree in biology and environmental studies.
He said the first year in general chemistry was rough, especially coming from a high school in the Bronx borough of New York City that had limited science-lab facilities. Members of his posse relied on each other to lift their morale, he said.
Mr. Medina recalled one particular meeting his freshman year when everyone was feeling down after just getting back a chemistry test. The group talked about the disappointment—and even laughed. "If I was on my own, I don't know how I would have moved forward," Mr. Medina said.
After that, the group members rededicated themselves to studying together and learned to leverage each others' strengths.
Brandeis has had a science posse on campus every year since, and there are now 10 colleges committed to having science, technology, engineering, and math posses over the next five years, according to the foundation's Ms. Bial.
The faculty member or graduate student in the field who serves as mentor can be a critical part of helping the social group function as a motivating force.
Katie A.Q. Cousins, a Brandeis graduate student in neuroscience who was the mentor for Mr. Medina's science posse, said she encouraged students to look at failure as an opportunity to learn.
"In high school, if you 'get' a topic immediately, you are smart. Finding things easy is always a good sign and finding things difficult is a bad sign," said Ms. Cousins.
"In college, the measuring stick is much different," she said. "It's learning to adjust what you are doing and not see grades as a critical assessment of your intellectual ability, but that you are doing something wrong and you have to re-evaluate … If you look at it that way, then it's manageable."
Vol. 33, Issue 34, Pages 10, 12-13Published in Print: June 5, 2014, as Harnessing Peer Power To Navigate College