UVA looks to Posse Foundation for answer to diversity problem

UVA's Rotunda. Photo: Dan Addison, UVA Public Affairs. UVA’s Rotunda. Photo: Dan Addison, UVA Public Affairs.

What happens when urban high school graduates are plucked from city life and transplanted to a liberal arts university halfway across the country? University of Virginia officials hope that—for a group of first-years from Houston, Texas, many of whom may be first generation college students from low-income families—the answer is they’ll hit the ground running.

Last month, UVA announced its partnership with the Posse Foundation, a nonprofit that connects groups of high school seniors who may have otherwise been overlooked in the traditional college application process with one of 48 top tier universities and colleges nationwide. The organization places qualifying students in teams of 10, or posses, for academic and personal guidance from the day they’re accepted in December to the day they graduate college. Posses meet with faculty advisors on a regular basis, and officials say the peer support makes the transition into college smoother for first-year students who are far from home.

Enrollment numbers from 2012-2013 reveal that African-American and Hispanic students together make up 12 percent of UVA’s student body. UVA Dean of Admissions Gregory Roberts said the University is “always looking to enroll students from strong diverse backgrounds,” whether that diversity takes the form of ethnicity, interests, or religious beliefs.

“It’s hard to enroll students from underrepresented backgrounds, due to the financial element,” said Roberts. “I think this shows that the University is committed to all types of diversity.”

“The Posse program began because of one student who said ‘I never would have dropped out of college if I had my posse with me,’” said Posse Foundation president and founder Debbie Bial. “The program is specifically designed to alleviate the culture shock of going so far away and to greatly increase the likelihood of success for nontraditional students.”

UVA’s first batch of Posse students will arrive on Grounds next fall, and the University is in the beginning recruitment stages with Posse staff.

According to Posse officials, more than 15,000 students from all over the country apply for 660 spots—which, a New York Times blog points out, makes the program more competitive than Harvard’s application process. Public high school teachers in Houston will recommend students with outstanding academic achievement and notable leadership skills to the Foundation, and hundreds of them will go through a three-stage interview process.

Bial said ideal Posse candidates are more than academic all-stars, and traits like communication skills and the ability to work well on a team are more indicative to college success than standardized test scores and class rank.

Posse staff will narrow Houston candidates down to a pool of 20, from which UVA admissions will select the final 10. UVA will foot most of the bill for all 10 students, and Roberts said some students will “have a little less need than others.” Each will receive a different grant package—with loans built in, due to the new changes to the AccessUVA system—depending on his or her family’s income level. A gift from San Francisco-based UVA alumnus Brad Singer, partner of ValueAct Capital, is underwriting the new partnership.

Elizabeth Morgan, spokesperson for the National College Access Network, a nonprofit that advocates for equal access to education for underrepresented students, had only one criticism of the Posse Foundation:

“Really the only thing you could say is that it doesn’t serve more students,” Morgan said. “It serves a relatively small number of students, and what they’re trying to do is address a lack of diversity at lead institutions, which is an interesting problem.”

Morgan said Posse students are known to bring new perspective to their college campuses, with a much needed commitment to exploring issues of race and diversity. She noted that about 35 percent of minority students across the board receive Pell Grants—federally funded need-based scholarships for undergraduates—but Pell enrollment at lead institutions is between 8 and 12 percent.

“It’s not that these institutions have trouble attracting low-income, minority students,” Morgan said. “They don’t want to serve those students. If equity were a real goal for them, they’d figure out a way.”

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