Power of the Posse

By Julie Blair — March 22, 2000 15 min read
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Rico Blancaflor can clearly remember the demographics of his dormitory at Vanderbilt University during his freshman year. Every resident on his floor was white, male, and a member of a Southern fraternity.

Posse members attend weekly meetings on academics, leadership, and group cohesion. Building true friendship is the key.

The Nashville, Tenn., campus felt like a “war zone,” he says, for students of color. The son of Filipino immigrants, Blancaflor chose not to unpack his bags. Every day for several weeks, he contemplated returning to New York City, his hometown.

But he didn’t go home. Instead, he looked for support from his “posse,” a team of seven friends from New York recruited by the Posse Foundation to promote diversity on the nearly all-white campus.

“I probably wouldn’t have stayed without my posse,” says Blancaflor, who graduated from Vanderbilt in 1998 with degrees in English and human and organizational development. “It’s the best gift I ever got.”

For the past 11 years, the New York City-based Posse Foundation has worked to build racial, ethnic, and economic diversity at the nation’s more selective colleges by recruiting students from backgrounds that traditionally have been underrepresented in higher education, preparing them for college-level work and campus activism, and then sending them to the schools in teams of seven to 10. The approach is meant not only to get such students into college, but also to ensure they do well once they’re there—and that they leave with diplomas in hand. Debbie Bial, the founder of Posse, came up with the “cohort” approach in 1989 after conversations with high-achieving minority students who had received college scholarships but dropped out before graduating. At that time, when she was working on behalf of another youth program, “we were asking them why they dropped out, and one kid said, ‘I’d never have dropped out if I had my posse,’” Bial says.

She explains that the word “posse” is urban slang for “friends” and was commonly used in the late 1980’s. “We figured, why not send a group of teams of kids to college together with a support group?” Bial, 34, who earned a bachelor’s degree at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., and a master’s degree at Harvard University, has worked with youth organizations since she finished her undergraduate education. Currently, she is a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard. Since its inception, the foundation has awarded more than $17 million in scholarships to send nearly 300 students from public schools in New York City and Boston to eight selective private, liberal-arts institutions, Bial says.

About 90 percent of all Posse participants have graduated.

By contrast, only about 45 percent of students from all racial and ethnic backgrounds graduate from college within five years of enrollment, the U.S. Department of Education reports. And the rate for minority students is significantly lower: Only about 35 percent of African-Americans and 33 percent of Hispanics who enter college graduate within that time frame.

Underrepresented students—defined as minority students and those from poor families—don’t perform as well in college as their white and better-off classmates because they often graduate from inferior high schools and may lack understanding of the fundamental skills needed to compete, Bial says. Moreover, she adds, many such students lack the nurturing mentors, supportive peers, and financial aid necessary to continue in higher education. The Posse Foundation aims to remove such formidable barriers to college success by providing all of those elements.

Student leaders from New York and Boston are carefully selected for the program, says Blancaflor, who works in the New York City office. Each student receives a renewable, full-tuition scholarship to one of the six institutions that are currently partners in the program: Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine; Brandeis University; Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vt.; Vanderbilt University; and Wheaton College in Norton, Mass.

Each institution provides the scholarships and pays an annual fee of $30,000 to the foundation, which goes toward overhead and programming. The foundation also survives on funding from corporate and individual donors.

Students select the schools they would like to attend and are matched accordingly. The students do not have to meet normal admission requirements, as the colleges are willing to take a chance on students who might not otherwise gain entrance into these competitive schools.

Posse participants are expected to attend weekly meetings run by in-house trainers for eight months before enrolling in their chosen colleges, and the sessions continue during college.

Students lose their scholarships if they cannot maintain institutions’ standards for enrollment, or if they leave school on their own initiative.

“Our mission is to help universities work on the issue of diversity by recruiting outstanding students from diverse backgrounds and training them to effect change on campus, then graduating these incredible kids so that they can take on leadership roles in the workforce,” Bial says.

The Posse Foundation is one of the most effective K-16 outreach programs in the nation, according to Patricia Gandara, a professor of education at the University of California, Davis, who studies such organizations and has worked on evaluating them with Bial. (“Minorities Need Path to Top Schools, Report Finds,” Jan. 19, 2000.) Not only does the program graduate underrepresented students—as one key to advancing minority leadership in government, business, and the arts—it also ensures they get their degrees at competitive institutions.

“This is a very interesting and exciting model because it bridges from high school to college,” Gandara says. “One of the things that we found is critically important is having a support group academically and socially.”

Some critics say that the Posse Foundation actually sets up underrepresented students for failure.

But critics say that the Posse Foundation actually sets up underrepresented students for failure. After accepting two posses, William Marsh Rice University in Houston quit working with the organization, citing students’ low grades.

“You can’t take a bridge program and teach them what they should have learned in 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th grades,” says Richard Tapia, the director of graduate minority affairs and a professor of mathematics at Rice. “That’s not good enough to overcome what they needed to overcome to succeed at Rice.”

Though the Posse Foundation selection process is ultra-competitive—each year, more than 700 students apply for 50 merit-based scholarships—the winners aren’t the usual batch of finalists for such awards. Most have only mediocre grades and average standardized-test scores. Many, in fact, would likely be overlooked by the selective colleges that partner with the foundation, but they are chosen because they possess a hunger for success and demonstrate the ability to lead, says Kevin Otero, a program director.

“We pick teams that will go off to campuses and change the face of those campuses,” he says. “We’re looking for the president of campus organizations and for somebody who is the coolest kid that everyone follows.” Such qualities can’t be measured by grades or SAT scores, Bial contends. So instead, she devised an alternative measure—a four-part test called the Dynamic Assessment Process—to analyze the applicants’ qualifications. Through a series of intensive large- and small-group activities and interviews, evaluators look for initiative, reasoning skills, and creative thinking. Grades, class rank, and test scores are considered, but only at the end of the assessment.

‘We pick teams that will go off to campuses and change the face of those campuses. We’re looking for...the coolest kids.’

Kevin Otero,
Program Director

The selection process begins in August, when the foundation sends letters to counselors in all public high schools in New York City and Boston, asking them to nominate five to seven school leaders of any racial and ethnic background, says Lauri Goldkind, the foundation’s associate director of development.

Students are initially asked to participate in group activities and dialogues. Once the pool of applicants is narrowed, the staff conducts personal interviews and considers writing samples, school transcripts, and standardized-test results from each student.

The students note the college they’d like to attend, and some 100 finalists—roughly 20 per partner institution—are chosen. At that time, representatives from each college participate alongside Posse staff members to build that college’s team.

In addition to looking for leaders, the foundation picks each posse to reflect the racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and religious backgrounds found in New York and Boston, Goldkind says. About half the students chosen are African-American, and 30 percent are Hispanic. Many are recent immigrants. Some 70 percent are from families that are living in extreme poverty. And in keeping with the local demographics, some white students are accepted. So are a handful of students whose families are considered middle-class.

The 10 students in Middlebury Posse 2 have just started their precollege training but are already so comfortable with their teammates that they tug playfully at one another, joshing and giggling. Rico Blancaflor calls this “posse love,” a camaraderie carefully built during the eight-month sessions required by the foundation.

Each week for two hours, every posse meets to learn college-survival skills, build team cohesion, and explore ways of becoming agents to change stereotypes on campus. The students also learn how to gain access to college resources, master time-management abilities, and brush up on test-taking and writing. They are taught conflict resolution skills and how to manage workshops. They discuss diversity and ways of promoting dialogue about the subject.

Within only a few weeks, posse members find themselves committed to their teams. “They’re like my family,” says Melissa Camilo, an 18-year-old aspiring singer and actress from Manhattan who is Dominican, following a recent weekly meeting with Middlebury Posse 2. “It is like having a whole bunch of brothers and sisters.”

The posse is made up of students from New York City, and they are the second posse ever sent to Middlebury.

Camilo turned down admission to Yale University to take the Posse Foundation scholarship because she believed she needed the structure provided by the organization during the tough transition between high school and college. And the program appeals to her need to help change the world.

“My presence will be felt,” Camilo predicts. “When people meet me at this predominantly white school, I’ll be able to erase stereotypes of Hispanics for them.”

‘I sort of fear being black.’

Morgan Jones
Middleburg College posse

“These are people you can relate to, and who will help you feel very safe and very comfortable,” adds Morgan Jones, a 17-year-old from Brooklyn who is African-American.

While the students say they understand their mission and are ready to lead, they also have concerns. They worry the coursework will be too hard. They worry they’ll be homesick. They worry, too, about being accepted.

“I sort of fear being black,” Morgan says. “Of all the some 2,000 kids at Middlebury, there are only, like, 20 black people. I’m coming from a high school that is half black.”

Should Jones want to hash out his feelings once he gets to Middlebury, all he’ll have to do is call his posse mentor.

The mentors, usually faculty members or graduate students at the partner colleges, are paid by the colleges to facilitate mandatory weekly meetings, help teams navigate administrative red tape, and deal with the stresses of academic life and new social environments. They also meet with each posse member individually.

Depending on the personalities in each posse, challenges can range from the basic to the complex.

“Sometimes they talk about themselves as people or where the group is going,” says Janine Clookey, the mentor for Middlebury Posse 1 and a mathematics professor at the Vermont college. “Sometimes, it’s pretty hot and heavy around here, and we just have something social and order pizza.”

The mentors are instrumental in helping the posses set up annual off-campus retreats, another requirement of the scholarship. The posses on each campus—depending on how long each institution has been involved with the program, there may be more than one posse on campus each year—develop a theme weekend focusing on diversity and including the greater college population. Each posse member invites several other students, dubbed the “posse plus.”

This year, posse students at Brandeis reflected on identity and community, says Mignon Buffy, the mentor for Brandeis Posse 2 and a graduate student at the university. The retreat drew more than 100 students, administrators, and professors, and resulted in a list—shared with the president and the provost—of recommendations to make the university a more accepting place. Students suggested building a monument to civil rights struggles, locating student cultural offices near one another in the new union, and extending the hours of student services.

The division between races at Brandeis, a predominantly Jewish university, is evident, says Sophia Moon, a Brandeis Posse 1 sophomore who is Korean-American and grew up in Brooklyn.

Stories of integration are plentiful at the foundation’s headquarters in New York.

Slowly, she and her posse and their friends have been integrating the campus environment, she says.

“When I sit in an area [in the cafeteria] that is mostly Asian, I bring my posse friends, and I become the link so they can sit there,” Moon says. “I can hang out with Hispanics. I can go to a black student organization function and not feel isolated because posse members are there.”

Stories of integration are plentiful at the foundation’s headquarters in New York. A black posse member who started an African-American fraternity at Vanderbilt invited a Jewish posse member and her sorority sisters to party with them. Soon, the two groups were hanging out regularly.

Two posse participants helped expand an organization for gay students at Vanderbilt even though neither posse member was gay. There are Asian-Americans who perform at Kwanzaa celebrations and African-Americans who form study groups with Hispanics.

Administrators and professors at many partner institutions say they’ve seen the effects on their campuses.

“Their impact has been enormous,” says Robert B. Innes, the director of the human- and organizational-development program at Vanderbilt University, the first school to participate in the program. The Posse Foundation program “has been significantly more successful than other diversity initiatives,” he says. “This is about bridging gaps between people, not about getting numbers of certain kinds of people [to campus].”

Innes says, “They are able to help people think without threatening them and turning them off.”

Such overtures are helpful and may even be necessary in a society that sometimes seems weighed down by stereotypes, but detractors argue that the Posse Foundation actually hurts diversity efforts by recruiting participants who are academically underprepared for the rigors of selective institutions. Moreover, they say, the foundation encourages students to become so involved in college activities that those who struggle academically have little time to concentrate on their studies.

According to William E. Stanford, the director of financial aid at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., "[Posse’s] approach—building self-esteem and some skill sets—worked well in the liberal arts, but not in engineering or the hard sciences, where they didn’t have strong skills.”

The university graduated two posses in the early 1990s and then ended its participation in the project. Rice and Lehigh are the only two schools that have withdrawn.

Despite the criticism, the Posse Foundation seeks out new college partners. The foundation’s operating budget for fiscal year 2001 is nearly $1 million, says Goldkind.

Administrators and professors at many partner institutions say they’ve seen the effects on their campuses.

Bowdoin College will receive its first posse from the Boston public schools next fall, Goldkind says. DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., will begin welcoming posses from the Chicago public schools in 2001.

“The idea is to open up posse sites in cities all over the United States so that we can have hundreds of fabulous kids coming out of the public school systems and going to outstanding universities around the country,” Bial says.

Small, private, liberal-arts institutions seem to be the most receptive, Goldkind says. Such schools often have trouble attracting underrepresented students because of the colleges’ remote locations, homogeneous enrollments, or pricey tuition. They are also the places where the students seem to have the most impact and feel most nurtured.

To date, Goldkind has had little trouble selling the concept to funders. About 70 percent of the organization’s budget comes from corporations and private foundations, she says.

The remaining 30 percent is given by individuals and drawn from the fees paid by the participating colleges.

AT&T Corp. sponsors the Posse Foundation, as does GE Capital, the Citigroup Foundation, and Merrill Lynch. Deutsche Bank lends the foundation prime office space on Wall Street. And last year, the U.S. Department of Education allocated a $300,000 grant to the foundation to start up the Boston program.

The foundation hopes funders can someday play a role in providing internships to posse participants, Goldkind says.

Right now, the prospect of a summer internship seems distant to Juvie Gonzalez, an 18-year-old from Brooklyn who is Puerto Rican. He is only a few weeks into his precollege training as a member of Wheaton Posse 1. Like many of his posse peers, he’s thinking only of the big picture.

“I want to help educate people to share knowledge,” Gonzalez says. “I hope I’ll be respected.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 22, 2000 edition of Education Week as Power of the Posse


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