What if every student who graduated from a city’s public high schools were guaranteed the money needed to go to college?
An experiment like this is under way in Syracuse and Buffalo through the efforts of a New York foundation called Say Yes to Education. The Syracuse promise dates to 2008, and the Buffalo version to 2011. In all, the foundation has helped more than 3,600 graduates from the two New York cities — many of them from low-income families — go to college.
There are caveats and conditions. Perhaps the biggest is that the students themselves have to be admitted to a participating college. But still, the prospect of a full-tuition guarantee is a radical and powerful motivator, not only for individual students but for civic leaders who want to improve their K-12 schools.
The foundation wants to spur others to follow suit.
“Our impact is going to be showing what’s possible and helping others replicate it,” Mary Anne Schmitt-Carey, the foundation’s president and chief executive, said in an interview in Indianapolis. “We hope we’re creating a movement.”
Schmitt-Carey and others from the foundation were in the Indiana capital to network with college officials at a convention of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
On Sept. 19, the foundation announced that nine colleges and universities had joined its partnership: Stanford University, the University of Southern California and Texas Christian University, as well as Colorado, Davidson, Lycoming, Occidental, Pitzer and Franklin & Marshall colleges. In all, there are 69 participating private colleges and universities, among them Georgetown University in the District of Columbia. The initiative also includes public colleges in New York.
George Weiss, a money management executive from West Hartford, Conn., founded Say Yes in 1987. His philanthropic goal has evolved from helping a few hundred students — in Philadelphia; Hartford, Conn.; Cambridge, Mass.; and Harlem in New York City — to thousands in whole cities.
The foundation, Schmitt-Carey said, has net assets of about $48 million. That is a fairly modest sum for the philanthropic world. Its strategy has been to leverage public and private support, not only for financial aid for college-bound students but also for building the pipeline to college through improvements in local schools and various social services for youths.
The clearest example of its impact might be the relationship between Syracuse University, a private institution with about 21,000 students, and the city of Syracuse, which has a public school system with about 20,000 students. Four of every five students in the school system come from families poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches.
Annual tuition and fees at the university exceed $41,000. Students in need typically qualify for federal Pell grants and direct aid from the university itself, which is standard practice nationwide.
But exactly how much financial aid students are offered is, for many families, a make-or-break question.
The university’s arrangement with Say Yes is notable. It will ensure full coverage of tuition and fees for any graduate of Syracuse city schools who secures admission to the selective university after being enrolled in the school system for three straight years. That promise is not contingent on the income of the student’s family. (Typically, however, Say Yes scholarships at other private universities do take family income into account.)
Ryan Williams, the university’s associate vice president for enrollment management and director of financial aid and scholarship programs, said that more than 200 Say Yes scholars are enrolled at Syracuse. He said the university draws about 50 of these scholars a year.
Recently, there has been some debate on campus over plans to scale back Syracuse’s partnership with another group, known as the Posse Foundation, that also helps disadvantaged students from urban schools.
But Williams said the university is “very committed” to Say Yes. “No interest in lessening that commitment,” he said.
Donald Saleh, who recently retired as enrollment chief at Syracuse, said the university’s goal was not only to boost recruiting but also to help the central New York region. “As goes the city, so goes the university,” he said.
That message, of course, might apply not only in Syracuse but also in Washington and other cities that are home to major universities.