Strength In Numbers
The Posse Foundation recruits inner-city kids for elite colleges--and makes sure they graduate
Brent Madoo still remembers the question that got him into college. He was in a workshop with eight other New York City students. Adults were there, too, watching the group and their interactions. "Should schools use race as a factor in admissions?" one of them asked. Madoo had 30 seconds to answer. He said yes--it was worth any potential harm to encourage diversity. "When everyone in the workshop started yelling at me, I thought I had blown the entire thing and failed the test."
Turns out the answer didn't really matter. What the adults were looking for was how Madoo and the others explained their answers and handled disputes. Later, Madoo learned that it was his persistence and diplomacy that made him stand out--and earned him a full ride to Dickinson College, from which he'll graduate on May 22.
Madoo was one of thousands of New York City high school seniors who compete each year for scholarships through the Posse Foundation, an organization that helps inner-city kids get into elite colleges--and makes sure that they graduate. In the past 14 years, 1,228 students have made it through the exhaustive three-month selection process and gone on to receive full-tuition scholarships from 23 different colleges, including Grinnell, Bowdoin, and Bryn Mawr.
The foundation, which is funded by a variety of groups including Goldman Sachs, Sallie Mae, and professional football charities, aims to identify top students from high schools in poor urban areas that recruiters from elite colleges tend to pass by. Schools and community groups nominate motivated student leaders to the program. Then the foundation puts candidates through its "dynamic assessment process," a series of group workshops, interviews, and evaluations intended to suss out leadership, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. Only a few make it to the final round, where admissions officers select students, relying on the foundation to find kids who may not stand out on traditional measures like grades and standardized test scores.
Backup. But what makes the Posse program unique is what happens after its students have been accepted to college. Each institution is required to accept 10 students who will attend the school together as a posse, a slang term for a group of friends. The idea is to provide these students, many of them first-generation collegegoers who have never ventured far from home, with constant support. The posses receive training before matriculation, including team-building exercises, lectures on time management, and academic tutoring. They continue meeting throughout college, helping one another deal with everything from roommate conflicts to challenging coursework. The setup seems to work: Ninety percent of Posse scholars graduate within six years, far above both the national average of 54 percent and the even lower graduation rates for minority students.
North Bronx native Xiomara Gonzalez, who graduates this month from Brandeis University, says her posse helped her endure freshman year when she gained weight and felt homesick during the snowy New England winter. "It was an artificially imposed relationship at the beginning, but we came to rely on each other because we felt like we had a collective stake in our success," says Gonzalez, who plans to return to New York and teach in the public schools.
The posses are exactly what admissions officers have been searching for. Most of the participating institutions are small, liberal arts colleges far from major urban centers, places that often look lily-white. The Posse Foundation brings students on campus who are predominantly minority--80 percent of its students are black or Latino--and who often become high-profile campus leaders. (Gonzalez, for instance, was elected to the student government.) That in turn helps schools attract more minority students. "It has been valuable by not only increasing the number of multicultural students on campus but also opening the doors of New York City high schools when our recruiters go back," says Gail Berson, dean of admissions at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass. Four new colleges signed up last year, and Posse opened training centers in Los Angeles, Washington, Boston, and Chicago. "At some point in college, everyone wants to quit and go home," says Laverne Blackman, a sophomore at Middlebury College. "That's when your posse is there to help you out."
This story appears in the May 23, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.