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Since 1989, the Posse Foundation started by Deborah Bial has doled out $600 million in scholarships to send 5,000 high-achieving students —regardless of their test scores— to top universities across the country. Each year 15,000 students from across nine cities (Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., New Orleans, Miami and Houston) are nominated for 660 slots. The selected students are put into teams of 10 to create a social network which they can rely on for support when they move on to college together.

Deborah Bial

Bial is one of this year’s Harold W. McGraw Jr. Prize in Education winners, which recognizes individuals making gains in improving education, along with Shirley Reed of South Texas College and Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, founders of the KIPP charter school chain.

The Hechinger Report spoke with Bial on Posse’s selection criteria for their highly competitive program.

Question: If not test scores, what do you look for when selecting Posse winners?

Answer: We’re looking for young people who have what we think is tremendous leadership potential and academic potential. We conduct large group interviews, small interviews, individual interviews that allow us to look for the kind of qualities and traits you’d be looking for if you were hiring someone for a leadership track position in, say, corporate America. Things like leadership, communication skills, ability to work well collaboratively, problem-solving skills—what many people would call non-cognitive traits, but these are traits that we think can predict success in college very well.

Initially, students are nominated by college counselors and principals and people in the organization, but then these dynamic interviews that are large groups where they’re building robots out of Legos or they’re running discussions on genetic testing or they’re creating a public service announcement or whatever. We’re able to observe them and look for those traits.

Q: Do you think college admissions departments could copy something from this process?

A: It would be great if more colleges and universities adopted this type of assessment alongside their current criteria that they use in their admissions.

Q: If you were the head of admissions at, say, Princeton University or your alma mater, Brandeis University, how would you select your class?

A: A lot of admissions deans are doing the right thing by broadening the criteria that they use to define merit and to define who deserves to be on their campuses. A lot of admissions people are saying we need to make our decisions based on much more than a test score and that tests are useful sometimes, but they often miss kids who are outstanding. I would hope I would be like that. We have 48 college and university partners who are doing this and I really think that [these 48 institutions] are thought leaders in higher education. A lot of institutions are moving towards test-optional, which is also an interesting way to encourage students to apply, who might not feel that the test is the strongest representation of their talent.

Q: Is it possible that it doesn’t matter whom you select, but with the right mentoring and resources, you could mold almost anyone into a super star?

A: I don’t think that. I think anyone can succeed. But not everyone is going to become a CEO. Not everyone can go run a newspaper or run for political office. It’s a certain kind of person who has that kind of interest or desire or drive, and we’re looking for those kids.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Aisha Asif writes for The Hechinger Report. A recent graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, she also holds a degree in biology teaching from Brooklyn College and completed her...

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