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‘Genius Grant’ for Leader of College-Access Group

By Scott J. Cech — October 02, 2007 2 min read
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Deborah Bial, the founder and president of the Posse Foundation, which aims to increase student diversity at selective U.S. colleges, was named last week as one of this year’s 24 MacArthur Fellows by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The so-called “genius grant” amounts to a no-strings-attached award of $500,000 over five years.

“It feels so mind-boggling to be honored with that,” Ms. Bial said in an interview. While she said she hadn’t yet decided what to do with the money, she “definitely” planned to stay on at the New York City-based Posse Foundation and to try to extend its reach.

Ms. Bial started the 18-year-old organization, named after the 1980s slang term for a close-knit group of friends, after talking with high-achieving minority students who had dropped out of college despite receiving scholarships.

Using donor funding, the nonprofit organization recruits urban public high school students who might otherwise be passed over in the college-admissions process, but who are natural leaders.

90 Percent Graduate

After sifting through thousands of 17-year-old nominees, Posse and its 28 partner colleges and universities, which offer the chosen students full scholarships, together decide on multicultural cadres of about 10 students per college, then give them eight weeks of intensive precollegiate training in leadership and academics. The idea is that the students will bond and serve as a support system for one another throughout college.

So far, drawing from schools in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, Posse has placed 1,850 students at such schools as Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio; Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.; and Bryn Mawr College in Bryn Mawr, Pa., and secured them more than $175 million in scholarships. The college-graduation rate for Posse scholars, Ms. Bial said, is more than 90 percent.

Daniel J. Socolow, the director of the MacArthur Fellows Program, said that by placing no restrictions on how recipients of MacArthur grants spend their awards, “we’re betting on them.”

He said it is the policy of the MacArthur Foundation not to discuss why individuals are chosen.

Ms. Bial had a guess as to why she was selected, however.

“I think there’s something special about Posse that they recognized,” she said. “There are a lot of college-access programs, but Posse is a program that dreams big.”

By 2020, Ms. Bial said, Posse hopes to partner with 80 to 100 colleges and universities, drawing from 10 cities and sending 1,000 students a year to college, instead of the current 350. By then, she hopes to have 7,000 Posse alumni in the workforce.

“We’re living in a society that’s changing demographically very quickly, yet you look at the most selective colleges, and you don’t see the diversity of the United States reflected in the student body,” Ms. Bial said. “We think we have a chance to change that a little bit.”

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