I admit the idea of a college "posse" sounded frivolous to me when producer Jill Rosenbaum asked me to consider doing a story on a graduating class of "Posse" students. The concept, pushed by Posse Foundation founder Deborah Bial, is that low income, inner city high school students will have greater chance at succeeding in college if they are admitted with a posse, the urban word for a group of friends who support you; who have your back. Think of it as going to college on a team. I scoffed at this because I've always thought high-achieving American students of any color or background can succeed anywhere-- without a fancy version of extended group therapy. Why would a smart, driven kid need a posse? My pre-conceived notion would prove to be--while not wrong--somewhat idealized.
Here's the deal with the Posse Foundation, which is based in New York. For 18 years they've been devoted to selecting inner city students who might succeed in college, gathering them in groups of 10, and arranging for their admission--as a group--to some of America's top liberal arts colleges. Vanderbilt. Brandeis. Middlebury. Lafayette. The schools are mostly white and rich. The Posse kids are mostly poor and minority. The schools agree to admit-- and to give full merit scholarships to--all 10 Posse members per class. 26 Colleges and Universities have Posse students.
We profile the 2007 Posse graduating class at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa. Of the 11 Posse members in this class, 10 graduated in four years, with the 11th member set to graduate this December. Of the 10, one will be a power company engineer, one is going to medical school, one will be a fashion buyer in New York, one will be a cancer researcher, several are going on to grad school. These are fantastic, engaging, hard driving young Americans, and again, you have to ask: why would a group like this need a group like that to go to college?
The hard answer comes from the way the races have grown apart in America. Most of these Posse students, (9 of 10) are minorities and most of them grew up having very little contact with white America. As high school seniors, they didn't see white America as hostile; it was alien. As smart as they are, they would no more have chosen leafy, white Lafayette college, than I would have chosen a historically black college. The posse then, is simply the kind of core support group anyone would want when navigating strange territory.
Just as important, Lafayette College would never have found them, under the normal admission system that values high grades and SAT scores and tends to discount the high schools many of these students came from.
This is why my notion of American achievement was/is too idealized. Yes, these smart young students could have made it anywhere, but without Posse, many would have chosen a community college. So in the story we prepared for air, wait until you see the pre-graduation ceremony. The camera captures more than the joy of achievement; it's the joy of achieving in an area once presumed beyond reach.
And by the way. At a time when only 43% of minorities graduate college in four years, Posse's four-year grad rate is just over 90%. (Harvard and Georgetown--high 80's) Something about the way Posse chooses and prepares these students is working, and the result --for the participating Colleges-- is a diverse class of minority students who lead and succeed.