It all started with a lament.
In 1989, Deborah Bial was working with talented urban youth. She was excited to see them go off to college, but was often dismayed when even the best and brightest returned home after one semester.
She asked one student what happened, and the answer set her in a new direction:
“If I only had my posse with me, I never would have dropped out.”
Bial soon founded The Posse Foundation, with the goal of sending diverse teams of carefully selected student leaders from urban public high schools to top colleges and universities, offering the students both peer and external support to help them succeed. The approach has worked: the foundation reports that students from the program have a 90 percent persistence and graduation rate, and more than 70 percent have either founded or become leaders of campus organizations. Since 1989, 4,884 students have taken part in the program.
The University of Virginia is the latest university to sign on with the program. Beginning this fall, the University has pledged to admit a 10-member “posse” from Houston for each of the next five years, awarding each student a full-tuition scholarship. A gift from U.Va. alumnus Brad Singer, a partner of ValueAct Capital in San Francisco, and his wife, Alexandra, is backing the University’s involvement.
“We are interested in developing partnerships with college-access organizations around the country to increase the number of underrepresented students,” said Gregory W. Roberts, U.Va.’s dean of admission. “We believe their mission is consistent with ours – to provide opportunity and be committed to diversity. We want the best students to enroll at U.Va., regardless of need.”
“U.Va is delighted to partner with the Posse Foundation,” University President Teresa A. Sullivan said. “We know that the undergraduate experience is greatly enhanced by having a diverse set of backgrounds represented on Grounds. This effort will benefit both the students who attend the University and U.Va. itself.”
Bial, now president of the foundation, said, “We are so excited that U.Va. – one of the top state universities in the country – has become a Posse partner. Teresa Sullivan’s commitment to diversity and equity is aligned with Posse’s mission, and we thank her and her team for investing in these Scholars.”
According to The Posse Foundation website, the students go through a multi-stage selection process, aimed at selecting a diverse team of “individuals who have demonstrated leadership ability, communication and team-building skills.” While grade-point averages and standardized test scores are a factor, “Posse looks for students who have done well academically, but who may not be considered (or might be missed by) some of the top universities.”
The organization stresses that the program is open to anyone. “The Posse Scholarship is neither a minority nor a need-based scholarship,” according to the website.
Students are nominated for consideration by their high schools or community organizations. Those nominated are then invited to a large group recruitment meeting, where they undergo group interviews. About half are called back as semifinalists for individual interviews, which identify about 20 to 25 finalists for each of the participating city’s partner colleges and universities. Those students must promise to attend their targeted school if selected.
In mid-December, the finalists go through another group interview, this time involving admissions representatives – including the dean of admission – from their targeted school. The winners of the Posse Scholarships are notified in late December.
The process does not stop with an acceptance letter, however. The 10-member “posse” takes part in a “Pre-Collegiate Training Program,” meeting weekly, for two hours, from January through August, with an additional weekend retreat.
“The training program endeavors to create powerful teams which should be able to work together as a support system, succeed academically and socially in college, and be agents of change,” according to the foundation website.
Once on Grounds, Posse Foundation representatives will visit twice a semester to check in with the students. In addition, the University and the foundation will identify a faculty member who will allot about 15 hours per week to mentoring each incoming posse.
The foundation also facilitates an annual weekend-long “PossePlus Retreat” for members of the larger student body, faculty and administrators to discuss an important issue raised by the Posse Scholars.
The foundation also provides an internship program and career services through “career partner” employers and an alumni network.
The Posse Foundation has established programs in nine American cities, with Houston becoming the most recent addition in 2012. In addition to U.Va., the Houston program now has five other partner institutions: Bryn Mawr College, Colby College, Texas A&M University, the University of Texas in Austin and Carleton College.
Last fall, the Houston program had more than 550 nominees for just 30 spots.
“The addition of U.Va. allows us to recruit an additional 50 outstanding students from Houston public schools over the next five years and connect them to yet another first-rate institution of higher education,” said Kamari Brewer, the director of the Houston chapter of The Posse Foundation.
Nationally, the first Posse Foundation partner school was Vanderbilt University, which signed on in 1989. Others among the growing list of partner schools include Brandeis University, Northwestern University, Syracuse University, Tulane University, the University of California-Berkeley, the University of California-Los Angeles, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Southern California and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.