In a conference room in the District's Columbia Heights neighborhood, 44 high school seniors eager for a tuition-free college education were asked a question: "What strategies would you use to start a discussion and keep a discussion going?"

Alexis Vigil, a senior at Benjamin Banneker Senior High School in Northwest Washington, raised his hand. "You have to have an icebreaker, something to break the tension that gets in their way," he said. Several other students had ideas, such as bringing up common interests or asking people about their goals -- all part of the qualifying exercises in one of the nation's most unusual scholarship programs.

More than 600 high school seniors from the District, Maryland and Northern Virginia, all nominated by their school guidance counselors, took part this month in several days of meetings similar to the one in Columbia Heights in the first phase of the national Posse Foundation program.

Many scholarships emphasize grade-point averages and test scores, but Posse concentrates on persistence and leadership qualities, and then does something no other program does: It finds selective colleges that each are willing to accept 10 to 12 students from the same metropolitan area as a tightly bonded group, or "posse." The students go through weekly sessions together during the spring of their senior year of high school and also throughout the summer before they set foot on the strange new campus.

Once freshman year of college begins, more weekly Posse meetings are held to deal with any problems that arise, academic or social.

Laura Torres, a native of East Los Angeles now in her sophomore year at Grinnell College in Iowa, said that when she arrived at the school, the transition was difficult because there was so much she missed back home. But she took comfort in knowing that her fellow Posse members at Grinnell were going through the same adjustments from their L.A. neighborhoods.

"It feels good to know that I have at least 11 other people I can go to," she said.

There are now 753 Posse students from New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Boston on 19 U.S. campuses. An additional 260, including the first groups from the Washington area, will begin their freshman year next fall. By then, the number of participating colleges will have grown to 23, organizers said.

In December, a committee of college and Posse officials will select 10 Washington area students to attend Grinnell and another group of 10 to go to Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa.

The other schools involved in the program are Babson College, Bowdoin College, Brandeis University, Bryn Mawr College, Carleton College, Claremont McKenna College, Colby College, Denison University, DePauw University, Dickinson College, Franklin and Marshall College, Hamilton College, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Lafayette College, University of Michigan, Middlebury College, Pomona College, Trinity College, Vanderbilt University, Wheaton College and University of Wisconsin at Madison.

"I think it is a very innovative way to do it," said Eli Clarke, associate director of college counseling at Gonzaga College High School in Northwest Washington, which nominated a half-dozen seniors for the program. Diane E. Epstein, a Bethesda-based college planning consultant, said, "They can identify those kids that have the potential but can't get to [highly selective] colleges like that any other way."

Parents often worry whether their children can get into a good college, but a greater problem for many students is graduating once they get in. Only 55 percent of Americans who start college manage to get degrees in six years, and for students with backgrounds like most of those participating in the recent Columbia Heights meeting, the figure is much lower: 41 percent of Hispanic or African American students complete college.

The dropouts give many reasons for this. Some say they are lonely. Some struggle with courses that are more difficult than what they were prepared for. Some worry about keeping their scholarships and making enough money from campus and summer jobs to pay their expenses.

Posse officials take pride in their record: More than 90 percent of the program's students have graduated in six years or fewer.

The founder and president of the Posse Foundation, Deborah Bial, was a 23-year-old English literature graduate of Brandeis University when she stumbled upon this problem in 1989. She was helping with a youth program in New York City and met several promising young people who had left college short of graduation. When she asked them why, one said to her: "I'd never have dropped out if I had my posse."

The program's Washington area director, Marcy Mistrett, and college officials told participants in the qualifying exercises this month -- designed to determine the students' ingenuity, patience and organizational abilities -- that about 60 percent of them would get called for personal interviews. The Sallie Mae Fund is backing the D.C. effort with a $1 million grant, and the colleges promise not only free tuition but financial aid for room and board for those who need it.

"It sounds very good," said Ashley Branch, a student at Surrattsville High School in Prince George's County, who wants to go to Bucknell.

Vigil, the Banneker High senior, said he was worried that his B-minus high school average might not be good enough, but that he has been assured that "they are not looking just at grades and SAT scores, but at the whole person."

Screening for more than test scores and grades, Victoria Cunningham, right, a trainer for the national Posse Foundation program, and intern Javeria Khan check out a toy made by students during exercises to assess their ingenuity, patience and organizational skills.