In 1989, Deborah Bial was 23 years old, had just graduated from Brandeis University, and was working at an after-school program in New York City’s public schools. A former student, whom she had proudly watched depart for college the year before, came to visit her one afternoon and gave her devastating news: He had dropped out.
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“We’re sending all of these smart, capable, excellent kids off to college and they’re dropping out. Why?” she asks. “He said to me, ‘I never would have dropped out if I had had my posse with me.’ and I thought, ‘Oh, what a good idea.’”
Bial took her former student’s words of wisdom to heart and, with the help of a $1 million grant from the Kellogg Foundation and free office space from the College Board, began work on launching the Posse Foundation to send kids to college together, in groups called posses, and offer them support before, during, and even after college. She figured, like the young man had proposed, that if students went to college in tight-knit groups, the relationships they had on campus would push them through to graduation.
The Posse Foundation has sent 8,400 high schoolers to college with full scholarships, totaling over $1.2 billion. These students have graduated at a rate of over 90 percent and are moving into incredible leadership positions.
“If you grew up in Philadelphia and you ended up in school in Middlebury, Vermont, you’d be a little less likely to say, ‘Forget it, I’m going home,’” says Bial.
Twenty-nine years later, the Posse Foundation—which counts among its supporters Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg—has sent 8,400 high schoolers to college with full scholarships, totaling over $1.2 billion. These students have graduated at a rate of over 90 percent and are moving into incredible leadership positions, like Gabrielle Farrell, a Posse alum who attended Bryn Mawr College, who is now Senator Elizabeth Warren’s press secretary for her senatorial re-election campaign.
“My Posse was my family away from home in a social environment that was completely unfamiliar to me,” says Farrell, who grew up in Boston. “It was tough, but with Posse, I had 24/7 access to friends to call, to pull all-nighters with, or to simply say, ‘You can do it.’”
The Posse Foundation has chapters in 10 cities, including Chicago, New York, and New Orleans, and partners with 56 universities, all of which commit to providing full-ride scholarships to 10 Posse scholars each year. The universities range from the large, public research institution the University of Virginia to the small, private liberal arts school Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. There is no branch in Philadelphia and the closest partner schools are Bryn Mawr, Lehigh University, and Franklin & Marshall College. The Foundation is supported by a wide array of funders, from Bank of America to Viacom to a portion of Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize money.
Nationally, 62 percent of white students and 63 percent of Asian students who begin college earn a degree within six years. Meanwhile, only 38 percent of black students and 46 percent of Hispanic students graduate. Posse does not screen for race or need, but because they operate in urban public schools, their scholars tend to be members of underrepresented groups. More than 75 percent of Posse Scholars are students of color and more than half are eligible for Pell Grants, a national subsidy for students who have financial need.
As a result, the organization is often misrepresented as a charity trying to help poor kids of color who would be lost without the support of Posse. Instead, Bial says, the organization takes “smart, capable, excellent kids” and trains and supports them to be leaders in fields where they are traditionally underrepresented, thus giving them a voice at the table that had been missing for so long.
Bial, who is the organization’s Founder and President and now boasts a doctorate in Education from Harvard, says its mission is about more than just getting kids to and through school. It is an attempt to make Congress and corporations and technology fields and science reflect all Americans in a way they don’t now.
“The ultimate goal of Posse is to work with colleges to develop a national leadership network for the United States that much more closely reflects the diversity of the country’s population,” she says. “Ninety percent of Senators are white, and 80 percent of them are men. They are supposed to be representative of the United States of America, but they don’t reflect the population of the United States.”
In Philadelphia—where just 25 percent of the population has a college degree—a 2014 study found that only 35 percent of high school graduates who went to college. 21 percent overall, had earned a degree six years later. And only 8 percent of young African American men graduated college.
The program has four components, beginning with a three-month-long interview process in which 17,000 applicants are narrowed down to just 750 Posse Scholars. Students are nominated by counselors, principals, and leaders of community organizations, and the interview process uses, according to Bial, “alternative strategies for identifying talent.”
“We have historically leaned heavily on test scores when screening kids for selective colleges,” she says. “But that’s not the only way to identify a great kid.” Instead, students participate in large group interviews and workshops. Initially, the room contains around 100 students, and they are asked to run discussions, build robots out of Legos, and present to their peers. Interviewers are looking for leadership, communication, and problem solving skills—“things that don’t show up on a paper application,” says Bial.
Over the three month span, the group of students in interviews gets smaller and smaller, until the Scholars are selected in December. The awardees are matched into their 10-person posses based on which partner school they would like to attend. Students then participate in the Pre-Collegiate Training Program, which takes place once a week after school from December until graduation. Students engage in leadership development, cross-cultural communication training, and team building activities with a member of the Posse staff.
In August, the posse departs together to their selected partner college, free of charge, where the Campus Program component begins. A Posse staff person meets with students four times each year, and students meet regularly with a faculty mentor at the university. They also participate in an annual “PossePlus Retreat,” where they work with college faculty and other students to problem solve around a campus issue previously identified by Posse scholars.
At Drexel, 71 percent of non-Pell Grant recipients completed their degrees, while only 60 percent of Pell recipients graduated. The gap between the two groups at Penn State, a popular college destination for Philly grads, is also 11 percent. At Bryn Mawr College, though, the closest Posse partner college to Philadelphia, the gap between low-income students and their peers is less than five percent.
The fourth component, the Career Program, runs throughout the students’ time in college, and supports students with getting internships and jobs and introduces them to alumni in the workforce. In a new portion of this component, students are matched up with VIPs in their industry based on a pre-selected career track. Last year, students in the government and law track spent a day with Congressman John Lewis, and scholars in the arts and entertainment track were introduced to Jason Blum, producer of Get Out and Paranormal Activity.
In another relatively new project for the group, Posse has launched a Posse program specifically for veterans. “A lot of these elite colleges don’t have veterans, and if you’re a 28-year-old vet, it’s probably not your first choice to go to college with a bunch of 19-year-olds,” says Bial. “But if you have nine other vets on campus with you, it helps.” The veterans spend a month in New York together participating in an immersion program immediately before starting college.
Philadelphia—where just 25 percent of the population has a college degree—does not currently have a chapter of the Posse Foundation, but could certainly use one. A 2014 study from Drexel University’s School of Education found that while 58 percent of the more than 9,000 students who graduated from Philadelphia public schools in 2008 enrolled in a post-secondary training program or college, only 35 percent of those students—21 percent overall—had earned a degree by 2014, six years later. And only 8 percent of young African American men graduated college. This means that 37 percent of Philadelphia’s 2008 public school graduates took on educational debt, dropped out, and were left paying student loans without a salary high enough to do so.
The study also found that even when black students in Philly’s public schools were more likely to enroll in college than white students, they were also more likely to drop out once enrolled.
Meanwhile, a 2015 study from the Education Trust found that at several Philly area colleges, low-income students, identified as recipients of the Pell Grant, drop out at significantly higher rates than their peers. At Drexel University, 71 percent of non-Pell Grant recipients completed their degrees, while only 60 percent of Pell recipients graduated. The gap between the two groups at Penn State, a popular college destination for Philly grads, is also 11 percent. At Bryn Mawr College, though, the closest Posse partner college to Philadelphia, the gap between low-income students and their peers is less than five percent. (At Temple University, the gap is less than one percent, even without Posse.)
This is one factor in the city’s persistent poverty rate—something that disproportionately affects African Americans and Latinos in Philly. And that is only going to get worse, as low-skill jobs are rapidly disappearing in favor of high-skill jobs that often require a bachelors degree. The Mayor’s Fund runs PhillyGoes2College, launched under Mayor Michael Nutter’s Education Office to help students get into and access higher education. The School District has an Office of College and Career Readiness, and rightly celebrates with College Signing Day, this year featuring former First Lady Michelle Obama.
But as the research shows, it’s not enough to get students into college. We need to also get them through college, and into jobs—something neither City Hall nor 400 North Broad have addressed in any real way. Only then, will we raise the fortunes of families and communities.
Yet no one in Philadelphia has approached the Posse Foundation about opening here. And right now the organization is focusing on expanding its partner colleges, as well as its presence in the cities where it already operates. The organization conducts extensive research before it will open a chapter, including a “feasibility study” that analyzes funding streams, student population, and other factors. Posse often reaches out to schools about forming a partnership, but also is willing to consider top-tier schools that reach out to them first.
The more partner schools Posse has, the more kids it can serve, and the more the organization and its alumni can shake up the status quo. That’s the goal, because as Bial notes, “We need leadership networks that look a little bit different.”Photo: The Posse Foundation