A Posse at Penn

Foundation that helps place groups of students from urban schools into selective colleges has formed its first Ivy League partnership.
July 8, 2009

The Posse Foundation -- known for helping students from diverse backgrounds succeed in top tier colleges -- is breaking through the walls of the Ivy League.

The program has, for 20 years, built "posses" of 10 to 12 teenagers from underprivileged schools who get full rides to mostly selective liberal arts schools. Once there, they help each other maneuver in the demanding environment and become leaders for their peers. Today, Posse is announcing that it will begin recruiting students from Miami-Dade public schools to go to the University of Pennsylvania, representing a new, more ivy-covered domain for the organization.

Students in the six cities served by Posse are nominated to be in the program by principals, teachers and counselors, after which they proceed on a track to one of the program's 33 institutions that recruit students from their city. After a multi-part interview process, selected students apply to their school of choice, and, if admitted, also receive an acceptance letter to the Posse Foundation. Once accepted to college but still in high school, they go to weekly supplementary education sessions, where they are taught college preparatory, conflict resolution, and leadership skills.

Typically, these students -- 60 percent of whom are the first generation in their families to go to college -- receive full merit-based scholarships from their future alma maters. However, with an Ivy League rule banning its member universities from awarding merit-based aid, Penn will become the first college in the program to grant need-based financial aid to its posses instead; students will receive a full ride only if they can demonstrate that they need it.

But Penn -- along with the rest of the Ivy League -- has adjusted its financial aid policy for the lowest income brackets in recent years, which means that each student's debt burden will probably be less than it would have been had they applied in the past.

"When you take a look at President Amy Gutmann's compact for Penn, which describes access for first generation students to college, it's a pretty clear direction Penn is taking to recruit students who may not have considered it," said Eric Furda, Penn's dean of admissions, and one of the initiators of the Posse partnership.

Penn is the first of what Posse hopes will be multiple partner universities for the Miami-Dade school district. Deborah Bial, president of the Posse Foundation, also hopes that Penn will lead the way in getting more Ivy League institutions on board with the mission, which has been termed "Posse Ivy."

"There's an enormous process of interviewing that happens before they apply to Penn, so [Posse] is identifying students that might not show up on Penn's radar screen," Bial said. "Miami is the fourth largest school system in the country, lots of the students are first generation, and they are often in schools that are under-resourced. It's not surprising that they might not get connected to schools like Penn."

Broadening access to higher education is especially critical now, Furda notes, as the United States prepares to see large demographic changes in high school graduates. According to a 2008 study by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, entitled Knocking at the College Door, the Hispanic demographic will see some of the largest growth in the coming years. Though the numbers vary by city, 85 percent of all Posse students are black or Hispanic, according to Bial.

David Longanecker, president of WICHE, noted in a press release: "Today, White non-Hispanics make up a shrinking proportion of public school enrollments and graduates, while students from other groups --- including some who have not been served well historically by our school systems or our colleges and universities, particularly Hispanics -- are seeing their numbers rise.”

Almost all colleges and universities have increased their focus on recruiting students of underrepresented backgrounds in the last few years, but Ivy League schools and their peers -- with sufficient resources and generous financial aid packages -- are especially well poised to take on such a task, according to Dan Parish, director of admissions recruitment at Dartmouth.

"At places like Dartmouth that are national highly selective institutions, part of our mission is to attract students from a wide range of backgrounds, and that drives the way we recruit students," he said. "Dartmouth has the resources to help students who typically wouldn't enroll in highly selective institutions."

While Parish would not comment on whether Dartmouth is considering joining the Posse program, he emphasized that the college has its own initiatives and programs to recruit students who might not otherwise consider an Ivy League education. One such initiative allows students, through an application process, to travel to Dartmouth free of charge to experience the college before they apply.

At Penn, other efforts seek to broaden the diversity of the incoming class once accepted. For example, minority student groups on campus reach out to accepted applicants to emphasize all of the resources available for minority students.

But, as Bial said, diversity is not a synonym for minority. "In the past, we tended to measure success in terms of how many students we recruited from underrepresented backgrounds instead of how well we've built our community," she said. "We are going to work closely with Penn to see how posses continue to build dialogue on campus."

Chantel Johnson, who was raised in the South Side of Chicago and enrolled at Carleton College, said that if not for Posse, she would not have been able to go to a college of that caliber. Without her fellow posse members, she added, she also would not have made it through to her senior year.

"If it was not for my posse I would have left Carleton after my freshman year" Johnson stated in an e-mail. "Don’t get me wrong Carleton College is a great place, but it is difficult and it is a lot different from being at home in Chicago. I love my posse and we have such a strong bond. If I had to give advice to any future scholar it would be to develop a strong relationship with your posse and remember that communication is key."

This community formed through Posse is only the start of a program intended to extend well past the posses' undergraduate years.

"Soon we will have 50,000 to 60,000 of these students in the workforce, who will have gone to great schools, who will be doctors and lawyers and teachers, who sit at the tables where decisions are made," Bial said.


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