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Widening the College Pipeline

The Posse Foundation aims to develop a “national leadership network.”

July-August 2017

Debbie Bial

Photograph by Robert Adam Mayer

Debbie Bial

Photograph by Robert Adam Mayer

Soon after Jwahir Sundai started at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, she began searching for “any resources I could get that would help me get into a good college.” A visiting admissions recruiter told her about The Posse Foundation, an unusual college-access and leadership program through which high-achieving students attend top-tier institutions within supportive groups—posses—of like-minded peers. The selection process is rigorous (typically fewer than 5 percent of the applicants are chosen) and uses a “dynamic assessment” process to measure qualities like boldness, resilience, creativity, and ability to work in a team, rather than relying on the traditional standardized test scores, class rankings, and GPAs.

Sundai’s guidance counselor nominated her as a candidate, and she soon found herself “acting like a chicken,” along with all the other Boston-area applicants. “During the first round, we did different activities that took us out of our comfort zones,” she recalls, laughing. In another task, she helped build a LEGO robot and run a discussion lab “to test how we were in a group, and how we would work as a posse.”

Each year, the foundation takes students from 10 metropolitan areas across the country (the others are Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, New York City, San Francisco, and Washington D.C.) and places them at 57 partner educational institutions. The year Sundai applied, she got one of the 10 spots allotted to Boston-area high-schoolers at Bryn Mawr, where she is now a rising junior studying global health. On campus, she is not only part of her own class’s Boston posse—a group that has grown close through working, socializing, and learning together during the last three years—but also part of the school’s larger Posse community. Because Bryn Mawr takes two posses per class, there are always, theoretically, up to 80 members on campus to whom Sundai says she can turn for anything: “Posse allows us to have a community in our schools that supports us both surviving and thriving at the undergraduate level—and beyond.”

More than 3,500 Posse students are currently enrolled in four-year undergraduate programs, says Posse founder and CEO Deborah Bial, Ed.D. ’04. (There are 74 partnerships in all because a third of the partners take more than one posse in a class.) Students receive full-tuition scholarships and extra support from on-site mentors/advisers and from Posse staff members before, during, and after their undergraduate years, along with connections to research opportunities, internships, and comprehensive career guidance. There’s also a network of more than 4,000 Posse alumni.

Posse screens for students “who are already really driven and motivated, the kids we think of as leaders,” says Bial, who established the foundation in 1989. “There are a lot of college-access programs in the United States and many focus on minorities and diversity,” she continues. “They focus on a deficit: ‘poor,’ ‘underprivileged’; something is wrong that the program is addressing. Posse does not do that—and this is really important. It underlies everything we do. Posse is a strength-based model that, although it also addresses diversity, identifies particularly talented kids, kids who would blow you away, kids you’d want in any classroom.” The ultimate goal, she clarifies, is “to build this new national leadership network in the United States,” to shepherd students who “can become senators and CEOs, who can run the hospitals and newspapers and sit at the table where the decisions are made.”


Bial, a 2007 MacArthur Foundation fellow, has a spot at the table herself, having built the foundation into a force for social change with 10 offices around the country, 170 employees, and $80 million in assets (including a $50-million endowment). Partnering educational institutions foot their students’ scholarship bills, “which is why we are able to be so big,” Bial explains, while Posse relies on contributions and grants to operate.

The foundation has always been headquartered in Manhattan, where Bial lives with her husband, former New York Times op-ed columnist Bob Herbert, and across the river from her hometown of Teaneck, New Jersey. Her father played the bassoon and contrabassoon for the New York Philharmonic for 38 years, and her mother was “the public-relations person” at the New York State Psychiatric Institute.

At Brandeis University, she majored in English, then worked briefly as a paralegal before taking a job at the nonprofit CityKids Foundation. There—and Bial has told this story often—she met a young man who had dropped out of an Ivy League college, who said, “I might have stayed if I’d had my posse with me.” That’s the whole concept. “If you grew up in the Bronx and you wind up in Middlebury, Vermont, or Greencastle, Indiana, without anyone you know or your family, it’s not surprising that you might say, ‘Forget it, I’m going home,’” she says. “The culture shock is tremendous. But if you manage to figure out a way to find your niche in that community, and a group of friends who can back you up, it changes the whole equation. I think everyone needs a posse.”

Within a year, at 23, she had started the foundation as “just an idea.” Vanderbilt’s Peabody College “took a chance on a program with no track record,” she says, and accepted five New York City students in 1989—“And the idea worked. That first group of kids was incredible.” For the next decade, Bial and a small team focused on designing the “dynamic assessment” tool and a pre-collegiate program for successful applicants, then added new partners—Brandeis, Middlebury, and DePauw, among them. (During this time the foundation officially incorporated, with Michael Ainslie, M.B.A. ’68, as the inaugural board chairman.) Bial herself returned to school in 1995, earning a master’s degree, and later her doctorate, at Harvard while simultaneously fine-tuning the foundation. In 1999, she began replicating the Posse model, opening a second office in Boston.

Further expansion, between 2007 and 2016, under the board leadership of Jeff Ubben, co-founder and CEO of the San Francisco-based hedge fund ValueAct Capital,brought 47 new partnerships and increased foundation assets to $80 million. Today, alongside additional financial supporters, Bial has well-connected advocates within higher education, including former Harvard president Derek Bok, who serves on the national advisory board.

These resources help fund the on-site support for Posse students that Bial considers critical. At Bryn Mawr, Sundai meets regularly with posse friends to talk, share meals, study, hang out. On her very first day on campus, she recalls, “People I didn’t even know came up and hugged me and told me, ‘Welcome home.’” They were other, older Posse members at Bryn Mawr. Especially important is her go-to Posse mentor, professor and chair of mathematics Leslie C. Cheng. Sundai’s had challenges, like deciding whether to pursue STEM studies and/or humanities, and says, “I don’t know who I would talk to if I didn’t have Leslie. She is supportive, patient, dedicated, amazing—she has helped me so much in my time here.”

 That quality—tending “to look externally when they’re challenged, to think in terms of teams solving a problem,” Bial says—is often a factor that differentiates successful students, and is something the foundation looks for in candidates. “They are more likely to succeed than the kid who locks herself up in a room and withdraws, who thinks she is the only one she can rely on. We tend to think of leaders as individual success stories, but they are successful because they know how to build relationships.”

It’s also why access to internships and career help is built into the program. Generous backing led to this spring’s announcement of a new Posse summer-fellowship program, honoring Jeff Ubben, for five high-performing scholars annually. These “once-in-a lifetime” internships come with $7,000 stipends, Bial explains; the inaugural fellows have positions in the offices of U.S. congressman and civil-rights leader John R. Lewis, LL.D. ’12 (“He’s my hero,” she adds); film producer Jason Blum (Whiplash, Kicking and Screaming); and Nobel Prize-winning economist and Columbia University professor Joseph Stiglitz, among others.

What’s next? By 2020, Bial expects to have a 6,000-strong Posse alumni network and 26 more educational partnerships, which would bring the number of Posse students in the pipeline and on campuses at any given time to about 5,000. In addition, she is expanding another cohort of the Posse population, which began in 2012: post-9/11 military veterans. “These are people with a lot of experience already, who are returning to college for degrees, and the average age is 27,” she reports. “Their first choice is not to go to school with a bunch of 19-year-olds out of high school. But to have other vets with you? That changes the whole thing.” Some 80 Posse veterans are enrolled at partner schools Vassar, Dartmouth, and Wesleyan, with another 30 arriving this summer, and Bial wants to bring at least eight more partners on board.

Bial revels in continuing to build the organization and hone the “dynamic assessment” process that asks candidates to build those LEGO robots, offering examples of the knotty questions posed to applicants: Are you more proud of how you think or how you act? Do you generally give people a second chance? Explain.

Challenged to answer one herself—What does happiness feel like?—she responds: “I’m a pretty happy person. I like movement, so I want to always feel like I’m learning and I want to feel that Posse is always contributing, always learning and growing. I want to feel like I am of value.”

Kids do, too. This past April, Bial was at a Posse event in Chicago with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg ’91, M.B.A. ’95, and Wharton School of Business professor Adam Grant ’03, co-authors of the new book Option B, which examines how people overcome hardship and obstacles. “Adam was talking about how kids really need to feel they matter,” Bial reports. “Posse’s job, our job, is to make that clear—not just to them, but to the world we’re in.”

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