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Head of College-Access Program Gets ‘Genius Grant’

By Scott J. Cech — September 25, 2007 2 min read
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Deborah Bial, the founder of the Posse Foundation, which aims to increase student diversity at selective U.S. colleges, has been named one of this year’s 24 MacArthur Fellows by the Chicago-based 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,” said Ms. Bial, who also serves as the president of the New York City-based foundation.

Deborah Bial, president and founder of the Posse Foundation at her New York office on Sept. 20.

She said she needs to take some time to decide what she’ll do with the money, but she said she “definitely” plans to stay on at the Posse Foundation, continuing to extend its reach.

Ms. Bial founded 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 foundation identifies and recruits urban public high school students who might otherwise be passed over by the traditional college-admissions process, but who are natural leaders.

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.

‘Something Special’

So far, drawing from schools in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, and Washington, Posse has placed 1,850 students at such universities 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 spend their awards, “We’re betting on them. Not for what they have done, but what we believe they will do.”

He said it is the policy of the MacArthur Foundation not to discuss why individuals are chosen. But he noted that of the thousands of nominees submitted by the hundreds of anonymous nominators the foundation appoints, “These are clearly the most creative people we have looked at this year.”

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 diversifying the student bodies of top institutions, she added, the foundation is propelling talented students of nontraditional backgrounds toward future leadership roles.

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 per 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. “If that doesn’t change, we’re going to continue to graduate a very homogeneous group, and the leadership of the Unites States will continue to be homogeneous. We think we have a chance to change that a little bit.”

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