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Case Study #7: Welcoming Veterans to Elite Campuses

Companies pay Posse to extend a proven model

We are committed to bringing to campus a diverse group of students who will learn from each other. Different life experiences and different opinions contribute to the learning that takes place on campus. . . . Greater understanding between the civilian and military spheres of our society has to be good for our country.
—Catharine Bond Hill, president, Vassar College

The military calls it a squad. The Posse Foundation calls it, well, a posse. It is a group of about 10 individuals who work with and depend on one another to accomplish a mission. In more than one setting, small groups like this have the potential to make the seemingly insurmountable possible.

In 1989, long before it had any relation to the military, the idea for the Posse method struck Debbie Bial, the organization’s founder and president. She had heard a student say, “I never would have dropped out of college if I had my posse with me.” The initial focus of the foundation was on creating social supports at top colleges that would reduce dropout rates among students from poor urban neighborhoods.

Posse aimed to solve two problems at once. First, although many elite colleges were anxious to have low-income and minority students on their campuses, they found it difficult to get them and keep them in school. Second, students from these backgrounds often failed to complete their degrees in spite of generous scholarship packages.

Bial’s solution was simple—instead of bringing in these students as isolated enrollees, recruit a group (or posse) from the same place and background and help them reinforce each other as they made the transition to a new social world. Beginning with a unique, team-oriented recruitment model, Posse works with universities to identify 10 high-potential high-school seniors from a single city who might not otherwise consider a top-flight university for cultural or economic reasons. Once selected, the posse undergoes eight months of pre-college training in teamwork, academics, and leadership, motivated by a full scholarship guarantee from the host college.

The members of the posse thus get to know one another well long before they arrive on campus, and they continue to meet as a group once enrolled. They receive weekly mentorship from campus liaisons and Posse staff throughout their four years of undergraduate study. And as they approach graduation, Posse provides them with internship opportunities, an alumni network, and career counseling. Since its founding, Posse has sent 4,237 students from nine cities to 44 top-tier colleges, secured nearly $500 million in scholarships for those students, and graduated them at a rate of 90 percent.

Extending an Existing Success

Since 2009, Vassar College had participated in the Yellow Ribbon Program—an extension of the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill through which expensive private colleges offer veterans extra scholarships, matched by veterans benefits, dramatically lowering the cost of enrollment. Despite this offer, though, “we hadn’t been having any luck getting veterans into our applicant pool,” reports Vassar president Catharine Hill. Several years into the program, Vassar had only one veteran on campus.

In January 2012, Hill and Bial were talking by phone about Posse’s new program for inner-city students interested in the sciences. It occurred to Hill that Posse’s model might also work “in both recruiting veterans and supporting them through college.” She floated the idea with Bial, to whom it made immediate sense. Before the end of the month, Posse’s board of directors had approved the idea of extending their program with the aim of getting more veterans onto the campuses of elite colleges, and then keeping them there until graduation.

A few weeks later, the most important element fell into place. Major philanthropic support was offered. The organization secured lead funding from Infor, a software company, plus six-figure donations from other donors like Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Moody’s, and Viacom.

A few months later, Posse opened the nominations process. By the end of 2012 it had selected its first class of scholars; 150 veterans were considered for just 11 spots. The foundation hopes to be sending posses of veterans to 10 top colleges in the near future.

Hill recognized that it wasn’t necessary to invent a new organization to solve Vassar’s problem in bringing vets to selective colleges and universities. She saw several qualities in the existing Posse formula, which had evolved over two decades, that could be redirected to this new population. “First, the Posse Foundation has a way to successfully identify talented candidates who will succeed in college. It was proving difficult for each individual school, like Vassar, with fairly small admissions offices, to encourage veterans to get into our applicant pools. Posse does this exceptionally well, and can do it for lots of schools as the program expands.”

Second, there seemed to be a natural fit between veterans and the small-group, mutual-support ethic on which Posse relies. Bial explains, “The idea that students will thrive if they go to college ‘with their posse’ seemed very relevant for veterans. In particular, everything we knew suggested that veterans wanted to be someplace where there were others who had had similar experiences. They know how to work in a team, they always have each other’s backs, they’re disciplined, they’re motivated. And yet these are very non-traditional students for these campuses—their average age is 27 and they’re going to campuses and living with 18-year-olds.”

Posse operates on the principle that the support of peers in small groups can make possible the seemingly insurmountable.

Once on campus, veterans in each posse will receive the same level of support as all posses do. Posse remains humble about its foray into serving a new population, and recognizes it may need to revise its formula in places. “What will be different is that vets are at a different place in their lives—they’re older, more mature, and have very different kinds of experiences the past few years of their lives. We have to acknowledge that in our programming.”

Among the adaptations already made is replacement of the eight-month pre-college training with a one-month intensive residential course. It takes place in New York City, and accommodates posse members from all over the country. With the support of donors, Posse aims to expand the program to serve 500 students per year.

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