June 21, 2012 | Education
Woman of the Week: Deborah Bial
Woman of the Week Deborah Bial spoke about how the Posse Foundation is creating a more diverse student body and why that’s important for America’s future.
By Anna Louie Sussman
Since she founded it 23 years ago, Deborah Bial has overseen the expansion of the Posse Foundation, which sends teams of disadvantaged high school students to elite universities, in nine cities and 42 colleges. But ask her about its origins, and she’ll credit the one student whose experience dropping out of college inspired her to launch the program, a student she had taught in high school who bounced back to New York after winning a scholarship. “A lot of the beginnings of an organization are about luck, serendipity, and that kid who said, ‘I never would have dropped out of college if I had my posse with me,’” said Ms. Bial. “He was a super smart kid, and his idea now has become this national organization.”
Determined not to let that tragedy repeat itself, she came up with Posse, which addresses two of the biggest problems facing higher education: high drop-out rates of students from disadvantaged backgrounds and the lack of diversity due to an over-reliance on metrics like standardized test scores, which can obscure the true potential of students’ whose schools failed to prepare them adequately. Posse leverages the power of peer support: students who have all been accepted to the same college meet regularly during their senior year and get to know each other, so that as they progress through college, they help one another adjust to the new environment, seek out assistance when they need it, and excel academically and socially.
Posse also selects its students through a six-month series of in-depth evaluations and interviews designed to highlight students’ leadership abilities, communication skills and resilience, among other highly desirable traits that fail to register on the SATs. The combination of choosing students based on character, instead of test-taking aptitude, and providing them with the peer support they need, has yielded results that defy the odds: the nearly 4,300 students who have gone through Posse have graduated at a rate of 90%, compared with a national average of 57%, according to a 2008 study from the National Center for Education Statistics. Ms. Bial spoke with the Women in the World Foundation about how the Posse Foundation is creating a more diverse student body and why that’s important for America’s future.
How did you design a test for these seemingly difficult-to-quantify characteristics, like leadership or ability to work with a group?
When I graduated from college, I started working in youth after-school programs, and often we were producing conferences with 300 or 400 high school students participating. Those conferences were amazing, because the students were voicing what they thought about different issues relating to education and race and identity and growing up. And you would always see the superstars shine. So when we started Posse, it seemed like a really good idea. Why not use that kind of an environment to allow students to show their potential? You watch young people when they’re performing on stage, or when they’re speaking in a debate, or when they’re making a presentation.
Yet, that’s not how we’re assessing students when they apply to college: we’re looking at their grades, SAT scores and essays. That’s fine, but if we rely too heavily on those indicators - especially standardized test scores - we miss so many students who have the potential to succeed. Think about the inequity in the way we deliver public education. You have wonderful elite high schools or prep schools, and then you’ve got these completely under-resourced schools, which are concentrated in big urban areas. Often, in our big cities, the kids that go to public schools are shortchanged. But there are really smart kids in those schools who have really big dreams, and they deserve the opportunity to get the best education and attend college as much as the student who has been more privileged. There’s got to be another way to find those kids, but if you just rely on the SAT, you really limit the pool.
How has the program’s design evolved in the 23 years it’s been running?
We started in New York City, with one partner college: Vanderbilt University, who, amazingly, is still on board and just picked their 23rd posse. It took us 10 years of developing the program in New York City before we thought we were ready to replicate. So from 1989-1999 we were only operating out of New York City. In the past 12 or 13 years, we’ve opened in eight more cities. That’s an insane growth rate, but we now have a formula for success. So figuring out along the way what works and what didn’t work was so important, and then it made replication easy.
What were some of those lessons that you learned?
For example, we were sending posses of kids to Vanderbilt, and whenever there was a crisis or a problem, I would fly out to Nashville, Tennessee. It could be anything from “I’m feeling depressed” to “I just broke up with my boyfriend” to “I’m struggling in my Economics class.” I was always out there. One day one of the Posse scholars said, “I wish you lived here.” That was the birth of the mentorship component of Posse, and we now recruit tenured faculty members from each of our University campuses to adopt a posse. It’s not rocket science - why don’t we think of these things? So the French literature professor will take this incoming Posse, and then the physics professor will take the next Posse, and the economics professor will take the next Posse. Not only do they get the support from someone completely devoted to them, but we also build a community on campus that understands these issues more intimately.
Education is highly politicized today, but you have this great, very proven track record. Are you involved with any of the debates around education?
These debates are so important. The cost of higher education is one of the biggest issues on the table right now. Posse works specifically with the top, most selective universities in the country, and at those schools, 74 % of the student body comes from the top economic quartile, and only about 11 or 12 % of the student body are black and Latino. Those institutions know how important it is that they address those challenges, because if they don’t, they’re going to be graduating a very homogenous class of students. And those students are going to have the most access to opportunity in the work force.
So Posse is saying, “We’re going to help you figure out how to change the way you admit and graduate students from really diverse backgrounds, so they can go be leaders in the work force and better represent the demographics of the nation.”
You’ve been doing this for 23 years. What’s something that’s surprised you about what you do?
The power of the network. There are about 1500 posse scholars, and there will be 6000 in the next 5 or 10 years. And that network is much more powerful than I thought it was going to be. For example, one of our alums just became CEO of Uniworld, a black-owned marketing company. Who did she hire to be the general council for the entire company? Another Posse scholar. This idea is really working, that you will have a new kind of national leadership network in the United States, one that this country that has never seen in its entire history, because it’s a network that represents the diversity of the American population. So voices representing all Americans will be heard at the tables where decisions get made, in a way that they have not been heard before. It’s very exciting.
I’m sure it’s hard to pick just one thing, but what’s your favorite thing about what you do?
Every day I walk into the office, past a row of pictures - portraits of graduates - and I remember when we were just starting out and we were borrowing an office from the College Board. We had one computer and one desk, and I would sit on the floor a lot to work. Today we’re headquartered in14,000 square feet on Wall Street, and we’ve got this row of graduates. It’s gorgeous, and it makes me happy every single day.
Anna Louie Sussman is a writer and editor for the Women in the World Foundation website, and a frequent contributor to major U.S. magazines and newspapers.