Students from Washington, D.C. will travel as a posse to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to attend college this fall. National Journal

There is no subway system where these kids are going. And it'll be white: Snowstorm white. Dairy farm white. White white.

But Kenneth Jackson, a new high school graduate from the Washington area, isn't too worried about trading in his urban life for a dorm at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in a few short weeks. He knows he can handle it. After all, his posse is coming along.

"These people," he nods his head toward a group of students lounging in a downtown D.C. office building on giant pillows around a tray of red velvet cupcakes, "you can be open with them."

That camaraderie, suggests a growing body of research, may make all the difference.

"We're still stuck in some of these more old-fashioned ways of thinking about how to really build a diverse campus." — Debbie Bial, founder and president, Posse Foundation

For years, there have been attempts to fortify disadvantaged kids — frequently low-income students of color who are the first in their families to go to college — with enough academic know-how to succeed in rigorous college courses.

But again and again, they drop out. Some of the reasons have to do with money. Some don't.

Kenneth Jackson speaks to his fellow Posse members as Laura Miller looks on during one of the group's final training sessions in D.C. before they head to college in late August. He's looking forward to the experience, but has concerns about being so far from home.

Experts have now concluded that dropping out is linked to reasons that are largely cultural. For many students, it's knowing that there are people on campus who understand where you came from. It's having a friend who gets that your cousins think it's more than a little weird that you're in Wisconsin when there's a perfectly good school within driving distance of your parents' house. It's taking comfort in knowing that you're not the only one trying to literally translate the FAFSA for your parents. It's a sense of belonging.

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"We've come a long way in trying to understand how to build community, but we're still stuck in some of these more old-fashioned ways of thinking about how to really build a diverse campus," said Debbie Bial, founder and president of the Posse Foundation.

Launched 26 years ago, the nonprofit has long held the view that mitigating the cultural dissonance that students feel when they embark on their college careers is a powerful propellant toward a diploma.

Brittany Silver, a trainer with Posse D.C., speaks with a group of students who will soon attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The basic concept is to create a "posse" of around 10 students who will attend the same university and develop a sense of community during trainings, guided conversations about topics such as race and gender, and more informal hangout sessions in the lead-up to the first day of school. Jackson is a member of a posse that has been meeting for eight months in the foundation's D.C. office and will travel to the UW-Madison campus later this month.

Once on campus, members of a posse meet individually and as a group with a faculty mentor.

And it's working: 90 percent of Posse scholars graduate college within four years.

That's a high graduation rate by any standard — the national six-year graduation rate is around 60 percent — but it's especially robust given that recent studies suggest that students from low-income backgrounds graduate at much lower levels than students of the same academic level who come from high-income backgrounds. A government study found that of a group of students scoring in the top quarter on a math test, 3 out of 4 higher-income students earned a bachelor's degree by their late 20s. The same was true for only 4 in 10 of their lower-income peers.

That's not to say that all Posse members are low-income or somehow at-risk. Bial pushes back at the idea that Posse is a diversity program. That may not be the intent, but the program seems more inclusive than most. A quick survey of Jackson's cohort shows that almost all are students of color, most are the first in their family to attend school, and several come from immigrant families unfamiliar with the U.S. college system. Other posse groups are similar in makeup.

Regardless of how Posse envisions itself, the diversity factor is a selling point for the schools it partners with. While they provide scholarships to students, partnering with Posse is a clear way to increase the diversity of their student bodies.

Patrick Sims, vice provost for equity and climate at the UW-Madison, where Jackson's posse will enroll shortly, is blunt when he says the school sees Posse as a way to diversify.

"It's a way of ensuring the UW reputation is out there and partnering with a national organization who has made headway in an area where we've struggled institutionally for quite some time," Sims said.

Recent high school graduate Zawadi Carroll listens during a Posse D.C. meeting.

The university is 85 percent white and 15 percent students of color. Of the students of color, 5 percent are international, and only about 10 percent are from the United States.

While some schools have shied away from pull-out groups like Posse with the idea that they disrupt campus unity, Sims thinks that providing extra formal and informal services is important for some students.

"In particular, students who are first-generation, low-income or have a target minority background need some extra support adapting to an environment that is for all intents and purposes completely foreign to them," he said, adding that "we don't underestimate the significance of those informal social networks."

College is not always a completely positive foreign environment, either. Amidst the usual worries about strange roommates and the gross-out factor of communal dorm bathrooms, the posse members gathered in D.C. mention that they've already seen glimpses of some of the racial and sexual tension that may surface — most recently, derogatory statements about gay couples on a school Facebook page.

It's definitely different than D.C., a few of them say. 

"So many of the issues remain the same," Bial said, referring to the continued presence of the racism and sexism that in part inspired the start of Posse. While the college-going population is less homogenous than it was a generation ago, efforts to roll back affirmative action in recent years have made programs like Posse even more important today, Bial added.

Over the last quarter century, Posse has expanded to draw kids from 10 major cities and partners with more than 50 of the country's top universities, who have given out millions of dollars in scholarship money. Bial says she expects Posse, funded by private foundations, to continue to grow. Last year, high school counselors in the partner cities nominated 16,000 kids for just 700 slots.

For the lucky students who are selected, the program offers a chance to head to college knowing there are people on campus who have their back.

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This article is part of our Next America: Higher Education project, which is supported by grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation.

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