Moving America Forward

A Gang You’ll Want Your Kid to Join

January 13, 2014
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A Gang You’ll Want Your Kid to Join
Why do so many good students from middling high schools flame out in college? A MacArthur Genius Grant winner sees friends as key to the fix.

For promising students from subpar or middling urban high schools, there are plenty of scholarships, grants and programs to gain access to elite colleges. But once they’ve matriculated, there’s not always a safety net in place: they might be unprepared for the mountains of work, or overwhelmed by the distance from home, or shocked by the money they see their peers spending (or the amount of alcohol they’re drinking). With no familiar faces around, drop-out rates for these students run high.

Deborah Bial was a New York City teacher in the late 1980s when a former student explained to her why he had walked away from his scholarship: “I never would have dropped out of college if I had my posse with me.” A light bulb went off: why not send these nontraditional yet motivated students to school in supportive teams?

Thus was the Posse Foundation born. Since 1989, Bial’s organization has sent nearly 5,000 students to 48 top colleges, full tuition waived, in groups of about 10. Through regular meetings in the months leading up to move-in, leadership training, constant on-campus group support and many shoulders to lean on, they graduate at a rate of 90 percent. After four years of helping each other through, they are like ambitious, close-knit families.

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Getting into a posse is no easy feat, and unlike college admissions, there’s no simple SAT-plus-GPA calculation. Instead, Posse Foundation administrators monitor students in group interviews that test for problem solving and teamwork. The non-intellectual attributes they’re checking for resemble the characteristic that Angela Duckworth, one of 2013’s MacArthur Geniuses, calls “grit.” Bial herself was a MacArthur Genius in 2007, and had developed a similar test, the Bial Dale Adaptability Index, with a $1.9 million Mellon grant earlier in her career. 

The founding of Posse landed in the middle of Bial’s own higher education, two years after graduating from Brandeis University (where she gave the commencement address in 2012) and seven years before completing a master’s degree, followed by a doctorate, from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

“We recognized early on,” Bial says, “that SAT and ACT scores do not capture every student’s aptitude for college-level work. There are many students who could perform competitively and succeed in college, but who might be missed by such traditional measures.” With about 15,000 students competing for 660 scholarship slots this year, Posse has an acceptance rate (4.4 percent) lower than Harvard University (6.1 percent), the most selective school in America.

Not that Posse wants to be so exclusive: in a way, Bial sees it as a weakness of the foundation. “We are simply turning away too many highly qualified students,” she says. “We cannot add partners quickly enough to take all the talented students we have in our pipeline.”

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Bial plans to expand—Posse hopes to open operations in a 10th city in the coming years—and has launched a new initiative for posses of veterans, currently in its first year at Vassar College, with Wesleyan University signing on for 2014. Catharine Bond Hill, president of Vassar, called Posse with the idea, which, like the regular program, will add diversity to the campus in addition to serving an often-overlooked population. It also receives support from the GI Bill’s Yellow Ribbon Program. “Given the tremendous leadership and demonstrated resilience of our country’s servicemen and servicewomen,” Bial says, “we reasoned that the model could also serve this distinguished group in their college aspirations.”

Those who’ve graduated through Posse have done much to make Bial proud. She shares stories of just a few of the high achievers who now serve as role models to Posse scholars. “There is Shirley Collado, a student from the Bronx who had a combined math and verbal score of 800 on her SAT. She was a member of the very first Posse to attend Vanderbilt University. She graduated in four years, went on to get her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Duke University, and today she is the dean of the college at Middlebury College.”

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She continues, “There is Adnan Prsic, a Bosnian refugee who immigrated to this country in 1998 to escape the war. Adnan won a Posse Scholarship, graduated with honors, got his medical degree from Harvard University, and became part of the team of doctors who performed the second full-face transplant in the United States. There is Mason Richard, a Posse alumnus and current filmmaker. Last year Mason’s short film, ‘The Seawall,’ was accepted into the Cannes Film Festival. There is Monique Nelson, a Posse alumna who today is the CEO of Uniworld, a renowned multicultural advertising agency. These are just a few of the incredible young people we are proud to call Posse alumni.”

Bial hopes to double the number of participating colleges to about 100 by 2020, at which point Posse alumni in the workforce will number over 6,000—not a bad support system for those who need an extra boost. These professionals, she says, “will be the doctors, teachers, lawyers, researchers, politicians, CEOs and leaders we need to address society’s greatest challenges and ensure our country’s future prosperity.”

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