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March 05, 2012

Everyone needs a posse

Connie Matthiessen, Associate Editor

There's a lot of bad education news out there, so I decided to pass on a little good news for a change. It's a novel approach to get kids into college — and help them stay there.  The approach is deceptively simple: it sends kids to college in peer groups, called posses, that provide community and mutual support.

Journalist Tina Rosenberg wrote about the Posse Foundation recently in the New York Times "Fixes" blog. The program places about 600 students a year at 40 participating colleges, where they attend tuition-free. The program selects students who demonstrate leadership, creativity, resilience, and other skills, but don't necessarily have the SAT scores to qualify for the top schools (like Mount Holyoke, Pomona and Northwestern) that accept them. But less than stellar test scores don't hold the Posse scholars back: 90 percent graduate from college, half make the dean's list, and 25 percent receive academic honors.

Once these kids are accepted to the Posse program and to a participating college, they meet weekly as a group with a Posse Foundation staff member before they leave for college. They learn college skills (such as college-level writing) and get to know each other, so by the time they head off to college together, they're a cohesive group. Once at college, they check in regularly, show up for each others' performances and sports events, and just hang out.

A Posse alumni who graduated from Middlebury College told Rosenberg, “’It’s so easy to get lost. I couldn’t imagine going to college without a group of people I already knew. I don’t think I would have made it.’”  Another said, "’When I was feeling overwhelmed the first couple of months I could call Sheyenne or Danny [other Posse scholars] and go to their dorm room and cry on their shoulder. The Posse was people you pulled all-nighters with.’”

What's so intriguing about the Posse Foundation model is how much a network of friends contributes to college success — and how irrelevant SAT scores turn out to be.  DePauw University, a Posse participant, analyzed student records to see what factors affected academic success. ''’The one thing that made no difference whatsoever was standardized test scores,' Cindy Babington, vice president for student services at DePauw,” told Rosenberg.

The Posse Foundation not only rewards skills that are more important than test-taking prowess, it also provides a leg up for kids who might not be able to afford college otherwise. Since too many top U.S. colleges are turning their backs on low-income students, and studies show that fewer low-income kids are going to college at all, this is really good news.

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