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Students cheer details on how Say Yes opens door to 'free college'

Alexandra Pepen has wanted to be a pilot for quite some time, but she never figured college would be the path to get her there.

Instead, she's had her sights set on the Air Force.

"I didn't want to go to college and get loans and spend half my life paying off loans," she said.

But Tuesday morning, sitting at an assembly in her high school auditorium, the junior at the Academy for Visual and Performing Arts heard something that shifted her thinking. George Weiss, a man she had never heard of before, said something that caught her attention.

"They announced 'free college' at the podium," she said. "I wanted to cry -- I had a lump in my throat."

Weiss, the founder of Say Yes to Education, officially announced to students in Buffalo that he was making them an offer they wouldn't want to refuse.

"You young men and women in the audience, how many of you are going to college?" Weiss asked the hundreds of students gathered. Pretty much every hand in the room shot up. "Well, I've got some great news for you. With [the Buffalo Promise Scholarship], you are all getting free college tuition."

The auditorium erupted into a chorus of hoots and cheers as students celebrated in what seemed a made-for-TV moment: hundreds of city high school students, all wearing white T-shirts bearing a blue "Say Yes" logo, cheering and waving silver, blue and green pompoms, overcome with enthusiasm.

At one point, the school's step team took the stage and led students in a thank-you chant: "Will you do your very best? Say yes, say yes, say yes. Will you study for success? Say yes, say yes, say yes."

Weiss, a money manager from Hartford, Conn., was without a doubt the man of the hour. After the assembly concluded, students swarmed the stage to offer thanks. Alexandra and plenty of others gave the man a bear hug.

And once the initial hubbub subsided, the students headed to class, trying to work through the particulars of how Weiss' offer might affect their lives.

"I want to be a pilot. Do you know if this will cover aviation school?" Alexandra asked a reporter.

Say Yes officials emphasize that they are in the process of working out all the particulars of the Buffalo Promise Scholarship. It will be modeled after a similar program Say Yes started a few years ago in Syracuse, but it will not be identical, they say.

While the specifics of Buffalo's tuition guarantee have yet to be pinned down, quite a bit has been determined.

Here's an overview of the nuts and bolts of the Buffalo Promise Scholarship, as they are known at this point:

The scholarship will be offered to students living in the City of Buffalo, starting in June 2013.

Students who graduate from a traditional public or charter school within the city limits will be eligible. Buffalo students at schools outside the city limits, such as the Charter School for Applied Technologies, are not eligible.

The scholarship addresses students' ability to pay for college, but it does not affect admission to college. Students must earn admission on their own merits.

The scholarship will cover tuition at any SUNY or City University of New York institution, including public community colleges.

In Syracuse, Say Yes has worked out partnerships with two dozen private colleges as well. The group hopes to arrange some partnerships with private colleges for the Buffalo Promise Scholarship, but it says that remains a work in progress. At this point, the Buffalo scholarship will apply only to SUNY and CUNY institutions.

College tuition is covered by the scholarship, but fees, books, room and board, and any additional expenses are not covered, according to Christopher Walsh, director of the Say Yes Higher Education Compact Program.

Eligible students who are accepted at a participating school must file financial aid forms determining their eligibility for state and federal assistance, such as TAP and Pell grants, based on family income and resources.

The Buffalo Promise Scholarship would bridge the gap between the cost of tuition and the state and federal aid a student receives. For example, if tuition is $9,000 a year and a student receives $4,000 in state and federal aid, the scholarship would provide $5,000.

Students would not be required to take out loans or do work study as part of their financial aid package, Walsh said.

Say Yes will pay up to 100 percent of tuition costs, depending on how long a student has attended the Buffalo schools. If a student has been in the Buffalo schools from kindergarten through high school graduation, he or she would be eligible to have the scholarship cover up to 100 percent of tuition.

For students who have been in the Buffalo schools from third grade through graduation, the scholarship could cover up to 95 percent of tuition; for those in the Buffalo schools from sixth grade on, it could cover up to 80 percent; and from ninth grade through graduation, up to 65 percent.

More information about the Buffalo scholarship -- and the broader Say Yes initiative -- is available at www.sayyesbuffalo.org or by calling (877) 927-2356.

In Syracuse, Say Yes provides what Walsh calls "transitional services" that help students and families navigate the process of understanding their options and selecting a college.

"The most important decision they'll be making is what college to go to," he said.

Say Yes also helps families work through the process of filing for financial aid. Last year in Syracuse, the group held 11 events designed to help families complete financial forms.

Local donors have already committed $15 million to underwrite the scholarships, which will be funded through private donations. Organizers hope to raise $100 million, which they say would fund the scholarships for 20 years.

"The entire community and the entire region benefits," Alphonso O'Neil-White, chairman of the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo, told students at Performing Arts. "We know that if we help each of you go to college, you will earn almost double what you would have earned if you got just a high school diploma."

Like many students in the audience Tuesday at Performing Arts, Mayane Barnes, a junior, found her thoughts turning to her own post-high school plans.

An accomplished saxophone player, she has begun expanding her musical reach by writing songs for the school's jazz band. She has her sights set on a college degree that would prepare her for a career in music.

Among the colleges she's considering: Buffalo State, Fredonia State, St. Lawrence and Villa Maria.

Lately, she's been thinking about finding scholarships to help make college a reality.

"This is one less thing I can worry about," she said.

Friend Mary Pasciak at facebook.com/mary.pasciak to get the latest education news.

email: mpasciak@buffnews.com