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Leveraging Peer Networks to Help Students Succeed in College

Everyone needs a support system to make it through major life transitions. So, why not harness the power of friendship to help high school students adjust to college and complete a degree?

While nearly half of all students who start college never finish, 90 percent of students who go to college as part of the Posse Foundation scholarship program complete a degree within four years.

The Posse Foundation chooses diverse groups of high school seniors in nine major cities who have strong leadership skills and sends them as a group to attend one of 51 elite colleges. Starting during their senior year of high school, the students together attend a precollege training program, often bonding in the process and taking the edge off what can be an uncertain time of transition.  Once on campus, they meet regularly as a group and with an individual faculty mentor to keep on track.

(For complete story, see 'Posses' Keep Students on Track.)

Rashawn Russell, a new Posse scholar from the High School of Economics and Finance in New York City who is going to Babson College in Boston in the fall, admits to being a little worried about being on his own next year, but says he's already become close with his posse. "You are going into college not with a group of unknown individuals, you are going into college with a group of close friends and family," he says. "I feel going into college with that home or that person you can rely on relieves the stress of going into college." 

When Posse Foundation alumni return to the high school, they explain their experience in ways that connect with students, says Frank Biscardi, the director of college advisement at the house. They translate the "school speak" of adults into concrete advice about what it takes beyond academics to make it in college, he says.

Since Debbie Bial started the New York City-based Posse Foundation in 1989, nearly 5,560 students have graduated from college with $700 million in scholarships.  A posse program at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.,  for students majoring in science, technology, engineering, and math fields started in 2008 and has since expanded to other campuses.

 Yasmine Marreo-Garcia, who just graduated with a degree in neuroscience through the STEM posse at Brandeis, says the group bonded around the anxiety of the tough coursework and they learned from each other how to study best for tests. "If it wasn't for my posse, who knows, I probably would have dropped science altogether," she says. "You can get lost so easily" in large lectures with hundreds of students, especially when you start at a disadvantage from not coming from an elite high school, adds Ms. Marrero-Garcia.

Katie Cousins, a graduate student and mentor for the science posse at Brandeis, encouraged the students to share their struggles and help one another. "When you think about a community, you can't just focus on yourself," she says. "By taking us out of our own problems and thinking about someone else's, it allows you to respond to your own situation in a new light."

To learn more about the Posse model, tune into a free webinar, The Power of Peer Groups and Posses in College, that I will be moderating on Wednesday, June 4, from 2-3 p.m. EST. Debbie Bial will present, along with Irving Epstein, the Brandeis chemistry professor behind the STEM posse model.

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