Momentum Gathers as Posse
By Cheryl D. FieldsFourteen years ago, when Dr. Shirley Collado was still a senior in high school, her college dreams were modest. The Brooklyn, N.Y., daughter of Dominican Republic immigrants aspired to be a first-generation college graduate. But with her modest SAT scores, unspectacular grades and working-class financial profile, the most she hoped for was to attend City College and perhaps go on to become a teacher or social worker. That was before she joined the Posse.
Collado was one of five New York students recruited for a new program that aimed to take urban kids who didn’t fit the typical merit scholarship profile, but showed promise, and send them as teams or “Posses” to a college that would ordinarily overlook them.
The program that recruited Collado to Vanderbilt University is now known as the Posse Foundation. Today, she has a doctorate in clinical psychology and is one of 539 Posse scholars who have not only earned bachelor’s degrees at competitive colleges, but have gone on to pursue advanced degrees and impressive careers in higher education, business, community leadership and other fields.
“They took a chance on us,” Collado says. “I don’t say this to sound mushy, but it is a program that completely changed my life. I totally believe in it.”
Collado, who currently works as national program director for the foundation, is not alone in her commitment to Posse. Since it began in 1989, it has expanded to 17 college campuses and has blossomed beyond its national office in New York City to include regional offices in Boston, Chicago, New York and — thanks to a recent three-year, $1 million grant from the Goldman Sachs Foundation — a brand new office in Los Angeles. Over the years, the foundation has awarded approximately $44 million in scholarships, says Deborah Bial, founder and president. Of the colleges it has partnered with since its inception, only two, Rice and Lehigh universities, have quit the program. Bial recently secured a $2 million grant for Posse from the Mellon Foundation.
Posse’s philosophy is rooted in the belief that retention and performance increase when students have institutional and peer support. The foundation serves as an intermediary between universities and students. Posse scholars generally show potential, but often lack the academic profiles that would normally identify them as prospects for schools like Bryn Mawr, Bowdoin or the University of Wisconsin. Posse’s innovative recruitment, preparation and retention strategies have produced an impressive 90 percent retention rate — a track record that explains why the number of students and institutions lining up to engage its services is growing. In New York alone, some 1,400 students have been nominated for next year’s 90 slots. Nationwide, the program will award 190 scholarships in 2003.
“We’re primarily concerned with student success,” says Madeleine Eagon, vice president of admission and financial aid at DePauw University. This is DePauw’s seventh year as a Posse partner institution. For the past couple of years they have sponsored two Posse teams annually: one from New York and another from Chicago.
Campuses like DePauw that sign on agree to pay a participation fee, which covers the recruitment and pre-college preparation activities run by the Posse field offices. Universities also agree to provide four-year tuition scholarships and to hire on-campus mentors to coordinate the year-round retention activities for the Posses they admit.
Posse’s recruitment and screening process, though unorthodox, is extremely thorough and ultimately yields students who Eagon characterizes as “impressive.”
“Our current student body president is a Posse student from New York,” she says.
The three-month screening method is rigorous by design, Bial explains. “We have something called the Dynamic Assessment Process. It is an alternative way of finding students with incredible potential.”
Initially, students are nominated for the program by high school counselors, teachers, youth group leaders, etc. Those chosen meet with Posse staff in groups of 100, where they are observed participating in a number of interactive group exercises.
“We watch them, observing how well they work in teams, how dynamic they are, (and) how are their communications skills. All sorts of things that don’t show up in test scores,” Bial says.
After the group exercises, 60 percent of the students are called back for one-on-one behavioral interviews. The most promising students are divided into smaller groups of 20 that are screened by each team of university partners. At the conclusion of the process, the university teams and the Posse teams compare notes to select a list of finalists. These students are then offered scholarships to attend the partnering universities as Posse scholars. Those who accept must agree to participate in another eight-months of college preparatory work before going off to college. The majority of the scholars chosen are students of color.
“We don’t screen for need and these are not minority scholarships,” Bial is quick to note. “Our definition of diversity includes everybody. Many of our students are high-need students and come from high-needs high schools, but we very strongly believe that if you don’t include everyone in the discussion, then you are not going to make progress.”
In a national climate where traditional affirmative action tactics are not always welcomed or tolerated, Posse’s creative recruitment strategy gives the partner institutions access to an additional method for identifying students of color who they might not find given the time and staffing constrictions of conventional admissions.
Bial was 23 when she started Posse. At the time, she was working at a youth organization with several dynamic kids who too often went off to college only to drop out a few months later. Disturbed by the trend, she pulled together a focus group to find out what was happening. One student said, “I never would have dropped out if I’d had my Posse with me.” It is from those conversations that the Posse Foundation was born.
More than a decade later, Bial, who majored in English literature at Brandeis College and is on her way to completing a doctorate from the Harvard School of Education, says the program is on the exact trajectory she had envisioned in the early days. She and her colleagues have set their sites on opening more field offices in Miami, the District of Columbia, San Francisco and Houston; and some day hope to offer hundreds of scholarships annually instead of dozens.
Universities “need to stretch their definition of merit to include more than just high scores and high grades,” Bial says. “The student who excels academically is obviously meritorious, but there are other students who can be just as deserving of a scholarship.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com