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Meet Deborah Bial – The Posse Foundation

DeborahBial_headshot_RGBDeborah Bial is the President and Founder of The Posse Foundation, an organization that identifies public high school students with extraordinary academic and leadership potential who may be overlooked by traditional college selection processes. The Foundation extends to these students the opportunity to pursue personal and academic excellence by placing them in supportive, multicultural teams—Posses—of 10 students.  We had a chance to chat with Deborah to learn more about this unique program and to get her thoughts on the current landscape of higher education.

1. You founded the Posse Foundation in 1989. What was the inspiration behind Posse’s concept?

The program started because of a student who said, “I never would have dropped out of college if I’d had my posse with me.”  “Posse” at the time was a term used in youth culture to refer to one’s group of friends or support network.  The Posse Foundation ran with this simple idea and developed a program to support urban, college-bound public school students of exceptional promise.  What we’ve discovered is that many of these students stand a better chance of thriving at elite colleges when supported by similarly motivated peers from their region.  And when cohort members are selected on the basis of not only academic potential but also leadership ability, what you get is an extraordinary group of campus student leaders.

2. Posse was featured in our 2013 American Graduate Day broadcast, which highlighted organizations keeping students on the path to graduation. During that broadcast, it was emphasized that 90% of Posse scholars graduate college. What services does Posse provide that makes it so unique?

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“Given the in-depth screening and the extent of support, it’s unsurprising that Posse Scholars excel.”

Posse is one of the most comprehensive programs of its kind. The process begins with a student being nominated for the scholarship by her or his high school or a community based organization. Once nominated, students participate in the Dynamic Assessment Process (DAP), a three-stage interview that screens for academic potential and traits like grit and resourcefulness. Our 52 partner colleges offer four-year full-tuition scholarships to those finalists selected into the program.

Prior to matriculating on campus, Posse Scholars take part in an eight-month training program designed to strengthen skills related to academic excellence, team building, cross cultural communication, and leadership. On campus, students receive weekly mentoring from faculty and visits from Posse staff twice each semester. The Posse Foundation also runs a three-day off-campus retreat—the PossePlus Retreat—attended by Posse students as well as students from the general student body. Finally, Posse partners with more than 100 industry-leading companies and organizations who offer Posse students summer internships and other career-enhancing opportunities.

Given the in-depth screening and the extent of support, it’s unsurprising that Posse Scholars excel.

3. Posse just celebrated its 25th anniversary (congratulations!) and has served over 6,000 students. What has made the Foundation so sustainable while allowing for room to grow?

Smart decision making at the board level has given Posse a solid financial foundation from which to grow systematically each year. Before we expand to a new city, we conduct feasibility studies to make sure the necessary demographics, infrastructure, and funding opportunities exist. And because Posse Scholars graduate at a rate of 90 percent—a rate well above the national average—colleges and universities view the program as a proven method for recruiting and supporting urban public high school students who might be missed by traditional recruitment practices.

4. Rising tuition costs, especially for elite universities, has reportedly been outpacing the rate of inflation.  How has this impacted the ability of diverse students to attend college?

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The soaring cost of tuition at the most selective schools is making it more difficult for students from middle-income families to attend. This combined with an over-reliance on standardized test scores as a measure of college readiness has left many of the top schools serving a disproportionate number of privileged students. Obviously, the more affluent the family a child is born into, the more resources they have to invest in that child’s education and the better that child’s chances of enrolling at the best schools. Ironically, standardized tests like the SATs and ACTs, originally conceived as tools to promote greater equity in college admissions, are today among the principle barriers to improving the representation of minorities and the poor at our most esteemed institutions of higher learning. For the simple truth is that students from poorly resourced communities cannot compete with their more affluent peers when it comes to certain types of educational investment.

In light of this, is it any wonder that students from families in the top quartile of income earners are overrepresented at elite institutions of higher education? Without key changes to the ways elite colleges assess applicant fit and determine financial aid eligibility, I doubt this will change.

5. You have 10 seconds to deliver an elevator pitch for why it’s important to enable diverse access and opportunities to attend top tier universities. Go!

The future of our democracy and global competitiveness will depend on our ability to develop leaders who reflect the country’s rich demographic mix. Improving access to top universities for underrepresented students is critical to achieving this.​