Increasing College Access, One Posse at a Time: Speaks With the Posse Foundation

Aug 30, 2010

The Posse Foundation is one of America's most important resources for increasing college access and educational attainment for underrepresented students. Read on to learn more about their accomplishments and how they do what they do, from the mouth of Posse President and Founder Deborah Bial.

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A Hamilton Posse from Miami

The Posse Foundation is a game changer in the world of higher education. While everyone frets about the plight of poor and minority students in American colleges and universities, the Posse Foundation is making a real difference in the lives of underrepresented students across the country. Not by selecting for race or financial need, but by seeking out students with high academic and leadership potential who may not succeed on their own, and providing them with the tools and support they need to not only get through college, but become thriving adults.

The Posse Foundation has been widely recognized for the importance of their work - this spring, they were selected as one of only 10 organizations to receive a portion of Obama's Nobel Peace Prize money. We recently spoke with the Posse President and Founder Deborah Bial about her work, the Foundation and how they're overcoming college access problems in the United States.

Dr. Deborah Bial of the Posse Foundation Let's start with the basics: What is a 'posse,' and what is the Posse Foundation? '

Dr. Deborah Bial: A Posse is a supportive, multicultural team of 10 students who attend college together.

The Posse Foundation is among the most comprehensive college access and youth leadership development programs in the country. The Foundation identifies, recruits and trains public high school students with extraordinary leadership potential who may be overlooked by traditional college selection processes and sends them to college in diverse teams--Posses. The Foundation's partner colleges and universities award these students four-year, full-tuition leadership merit scholarships.

Today, The Posse Foundation has program sites in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, D.C., L.A., Miami and New York and boasts partnerships with 38 top colleges and universities. More than 3,100 students have won Posse Scholarships to date. Most important, Posse Scholars graduate at a rate of 90 percent--well above the national average. Our ultimate goal is to build a new type of leadership network--one that better reflects the rich diversity and changing demographics of our country.

E-P: Can you tell us a little bit about your background in education, and what led you to launch the Posse Foundation?'

DB: I founded The Posse Foundation in 1989 in response to a troubling pattern. I had been conducting leadership training in New York City public high schools and noticed that many talented students were leaving the city for college only to return months later having dropped out. At the time, 'posse' was a popular term in youth culture used to describe a group of friends who look out for one another, who back each other up. One particular student who had dropped out of an Ivy League institution remarked that if he had his posse with him, he would have stayed and ultimately graduated. It seemed an incredibly simple idea. Why not send a Posse, or a team of students, together to college.

I earned my master's and doctoral degrees in education with a focus on higher education administration, planning and social policy from Harvard University. In 1999, I received a 1.9 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for my dissertation work, which focused on the design and assessment of a new college admissions tool that could be used in addition to the traditional admissions measures. In 2007, I received a MacArthur 'Genius' Award for my work in education.

E-P: The Posse Foundation boasts 38 partner colleges and universities. What does it mean for a school to partner with the Foundation?'

DB: Our partner colleges and universities are the backbone of our program. Quite frankly, without their commitment, we could not exist. Each of our institutional partners provides a minimum of 10 four-year, full-tuition merit scholarships every year and assigns each cohort a campus mentor to facilitate group meetings and support Scholars during their first two years on campus.

E-P: The Posse Foundation has been heralded has a national leader in improving college access. Can you tell us more about the challenges that your target students typically face, and what the Foundation is doing to overcome them?'

DB: One challenge lies in developing tools to identifying the many students who get missed by traditional academic aptitude measures, such as standardized tests. Posse employs an alternative, holistic approach that highlights non-cognitive traits--such as communication skills, ability to work well in a team, level of motivation, and creativity. This allows us to cast a finer net, to identify students who are full of academic and leadership potential, but too often lacking in opportunity.

Another challenge to improving the college going and completion rates of underrepresented students is the social alienation and stereotyping that many of them experience once on campus. The Posse cohort model is designed to help alleviate some of these factors. Posse is neither a race-based nor a need-based program; our Scholars are selected based on their leadership potential and academic promise. Once selected for the Scholarship in their senior year of high school, Posse Scholars participate in an eight-month Pre-Collegiate Training Program, which prepares them in areas of academic excellence, cross-cultural dialogue, team building, and leadership. Each Scholar arrives on campus knowing nine other individuals and better equipped to face the typical social barriers to success. Posse Scholars, as dynamic leaders, also serve as catalysts for increased individual and community development.

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E-P: Who are the Posse Scholars, and how does someone become one? What is the process like for Posse Scholars, from application through college? How does it affect the college experience?'

DB: Posse Scholars are recruited from urban public high schools in cities across the country. To apply for the Posse Scholarship a student must be nominated by his/her high school or by a community-based organization. (Students who are interested in becoming Posse Scholars should speak with their guidance counselor.) In selecting Scholars, Posse uses its Dynamic Assessment Process (DAP), a unique evaluation method designed to zero in on highly qualified nontraditional students. DAP is a three-stage process that includes large group and individual interviews. Posse staff and university partner administrators ultimately select a diverse group of 10 students for each university, thus forming a Posse.

E-P: Following up with students from high school through their college careers seems to be central to Posse's philosophy. Can you tell us how you encourage alumni involvement, what this gives your Scholars and why it's so important to your mission?'

DB: Through its Career and Alumni Programs, The Posse Foundation remains connected to its Alumni. This is key to our mission because it contributes to the development of a growing network of young leaders in the workforce who reflect the country's rich demographic mix.

Posse's primary strategies for engaging Alumni include providing ongoing opportunities for graduates to access career advancement services (e.g. networking events, graduate school opportunities), and creating a space for Alumni to remain connected to each other and to Posse. We also use multiple systems for communicating with Alumni (e.g. e-newsletter, annual conference, Facebook, Twitter).

E-P: Another part of the Foundation's follow-up services is the Career Program. Can you tell us how the career services work and how this program fits into the central mission of the organization? Was it part of the original Foundation, or has it been added on as part of the growth process? '

DB: Posse's Career Program ensures that the growing network of Posse Scholars and Alumni are prepared for competitive professional careers. Career services offered to Scholars and Alumni include ongoing career advisement, access to meaningful internships during college, connections to top graduate schools, monthly email notifications about new career opportunities, and several annual professional networking events for Alumni.

Currently, Posse Alumni pursue impressive careers across a wide range of industries and take on significant leadership roles at the nation's most competitive companies. Posse Alumni are doctors, teachers, engineers, graduate students, lawyers, social workers and bankers. In the past two years alone, 17 Posse Scholars have won Fulbright scholarships. In addition, 45 percent of Alumni with two or more years of experience have a graduate degree or are currently pursuing a graduate degree.

E-P: Finally, I'd like to close by offering you the opportunity to share any further information you'd like about the Posse Foundation and tell our readers how they can get involved with the Posse Foundation.'

DB: We are very proud of the many accomplishments of our Scholars and Alumni. These young people are graduating at an impressive rate of over 90 percent. They are helping to make their college communities more interactive and welcoming to students from all backgrounds by founding and leading campus organizations. And thanks to the commitment of our college and university partners, The Posse Foundation is making a difference, changing the likelihood of success in college for thousands of young people across the nation.

If you would like to learn more about volunteer opportunities at The Posse Foundation or to make a donation, please visit our Web site at

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